I’ve been trying to form an opinion on this topic for ages, but somehow it keeps puzzling me. A couple of months ago I came across this news item, which I can summarise by quoting:
Ministers are backing proposals that would enable millions of broadband users to pay an annual levy which would allow them to copy as much – previously illegal – music from the internet as they wanted. The money raised would be channelled back to the rights-holders, with artists responsible for the most popular songs receiving a bigger slice of the cash. […] They believe it would prevent criminalising large sections of the public, while helping to compensate the music industry for lost sales. If successful it could be extended to cover films and television programmes.
I haven’t been trained to think in any lawyerly way, but instinctively felt there was something wrong about this idea of a download tax. For weeks now, I’ve been meaning to write something very insightful on the topic – lol. Needless to say, the insight hasn’t come yet, and so instead I’ll try and track my train of thought on this by writing a few posts as I’m making progress forming that opinion.
What initially struck me as odd was the notion that we would legalise something simply because “everybody does it”. On second thought, though, that isn’t such a strange approach at all, perhaps even a naturally democratic way of thinking: if most of us see no harm in the practice of file sharing, and we are in fact also the legislators (well, indirectly through our chosen representatives), then it certainly makes sense to consider legalising it.
Note that this justification for changing the legislation is actually rather different of that which The Independent suggested, which was “prevent[ing] criminalising large sections of the public”. Instead, the point here is that the public gave up their freedom to copy when they (the public that is) instated copyright law. Now, they would simply be taking back that freedom by new legislation.
So far, I didn’t do any of the thinking. Most of this came out of a very pure account of the origins of copyright law given by Richard Stallman, which is available at the GNU website. Stallman points out that we originally gave up our freedom to copy with the objective that the benefits this brings to authors (being able to sell their work) would encourage them to publish more works. He emphasises that copyright is not a natural right of authors, but a right acquired in a bargain with the public.
So I guess that, taking back our freedom to copy, we would either need to be content with fewer published works in the future, or to find a new bargain. One form of such a bargain could be such a “download tax”.
Well, that’s how far I got until now. I’m surprised to find myself a bit more open to the download tax idea than I was initially. In the end, I think I’d still reject the plan because it’s completely impractical, but that’s something for another post.