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War on Culture's victims face Penitentiary Blues

The DoJ muscles in

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Step by step, the United States is becoming institutionally engaged in another 'War' against another abstraction - a War it can't win and shouldn't even be fighting. Critics were grimly amused to watch the copyright holders engage the trappings of the state - such as when the RIAA employed goons in police garb to confiscate $10 worth of counterfeit CDs from a Los Angeles car park attendant who couldn't speak English. But now, thanks to the powerful lobby groups, the State itself is being drawn in.

Attorney General John Ashcroft rushed back from gall-bladder surgery this week - you can't keep a good man down - to announce that the Department of Justice will set up a special Intellectual Property Task Force. Although access and compensation are the two most important issues, the IPTF's job isn't to investigate new ways of engaging with or distributing Intellectual Property in the digital age, of course, nor examine compensation systems. The parameters have already been set.

The formation of the IPTF, we learn from the press release, is "a milestone in the Justice Department's efforts to protect intellectual property rights," according to the press release [our emphasis] and its new chief himself framed it as "meet the evolving challenges that law enforcement faces".

So sharing IP is a crime and it's also a law enforcement problem. But it's only a law enforcement problem if citizens are breaking the law, of course. Both the 'law' and the 'enforcement' received a pep today.

The House Judiciary committee today gave its approval to a bill introduced last summer, HR.2517 or the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act. File swappers face three years in jail for the first offence, and six more years in the clink for repeat offences, thus making criminals out of a large section of the US population. The FBI will be encouraged to "facilitate the sharing" of information among Internet providers, copyright holders and police; a short way of saying that the State will act as both snooper and enforcer for private property holders.

In a heart-searching chapter in his latest book, Lawrence Lessig takes himself to task for losing the Eldred copyright case, which would have rolled back Congress' right to extend the Copyright terms as it sees fit. He berates himself for presenting a logically correct argument, rather than a powerful moral case. Lessig isn't alone: we're reaping ten years of arguing absolutes ("freedom") while the moral case for culture has been neglected. In some cases, citizens groups gave up their moral authority by promoting systems such as Napster without addressing the case that artists should be recompensed. As a consequence, in both the Berman Bill and Ashcroft's Task Force, there isn't even a token attempt to justify the measures on behalf of citizens. If you had just landed from another planet, and read these two documents, the moral authority rests entirely with the copyright holders.

Nor do the politicians responsible make any attempt to disguise who they are acting for. James Sensennbrenner, Head of the House Judiciary Committee which approved HR.2517 today, took $18,000 from the RIAA to lobby on its behalf oversees. He currently evades a conflict of interest investigation only on the flimsiest of technicalities.

The top five contributors to Howard Berman, co-sponsor of PTEA when his last ill-fated effort to plant bombs in personal computers was introduced were Walt Disney Co, $32,000; AOL Time Warner, $28,800; Vivendi Universal, $27,591; Viacom Inc, $13,000; and News Corp, $11,750, notes P2P.net.

Campaign contributions for Bill Lockyer - he's the California's State Attorney who recently called for peer to peer software to be banned - from the pigopolists are matched only by contributions from prison guards unions and construction interests. It's tempting to see the War on Culture a hedge by the prison-industrial complex in case the War on Drugs fails, and the jails empty.

In the end a War on File Sharing is unwinnable as the 'Wars' on Terror, or on Drugs. Removing the 'war ' description doesn't mean that drug abuse is less of a social problem or that terrible terrorist outrages must not be prevented. But that's the point of such unwinnable wars: they really shouldn't be won. The point is that they should drag on for a very long time. They aren't crusades, so much as National Mood Music. ®

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