Music piracy is the new terrorism

Is the war on terror in Iraq or in your iPod?

Illustration By Erin Sierchio

Theoretically speaking, can one even conduct a “war on terror” without cracking down on some ruthless pirates? It would be awesome if the government went after swashbucklers with the same tenacity with which it persecutes teenage file-sharers. Honestly, who is a greater threat to national security: a freewheelin’ buccaneer or a bootlegger downloading “My Humps”? To a greater extent these days, it seems the government is choosing the latter.

Last November, Governor Schwarzenegger and unofficial state envoy Jackie Chan went to China to preach against media piracy with a $40,000 public-service announcement directed by Jonathan Mostow of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. (Arnold’s one-liner on piracy: “Let’s terminate it!”) An estimated 90 percent of the music on the market in China is illegally produced, which contributes to the projected $250 billion lost by U.S. companies each year to piracy and no doubt adversely affects California’s $30 billion film and music industry. On the other hand, is it really in the people’s interest to have the governor overseas showboating on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)?

Profits for the big five media conglomerates are down, and the issue of piracy has record executives’ panties in a twist. On February 22, the governor signed Assembly Bill 64, legislation that will allow law enforcement to prosecute individuals who possess an inventory of at least 100 counterfeit CD units; the previous threshold for a felony charge was 1,000. According to the RIAA’s Web site, California law enforcement seized more than 1 million illegal CDs in 2005, leading to more than 1,200 arrests. Oddly, almost 90 percent of these pirated products were in the Latin music genre.

RIAA CEO Mitch Bainwol—former adviser to embattled Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist—said the new law “ensures that thieves threatening the livelihoods of those in the music industry will face much greater risk of being prosecuted and punished.” We wouldn’t want Usher or Kanye to go without a meal, now would we?

California’s new law is one of the most recent developments in a nationwide quest to curb piracy. In Oregon, a 2003 bill sought to define pirating CDs as an act of terrorism, punishable by a minimum of 25 years in prison. The bill was defeated by three votes. That same year, Representative John Carter, R-Texas, went on the record at a congressional hearing to state that “it’d be a good idea to go out and actually bust a couple of the college kids” for illegally downloading music.

Ironically, President Bush signed Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s Family Entertainment and Copyright Act last year. This law made it a federal crime to camcord a movie in a theater, but it also allows companies like Utah’s ClearPlay to profit by selling DVD filters that modify the content of existing movies to make new “unobjectionable” versions. The message from our government? Stealing an artist’s intellectual property for economic gain is bad (especially when conducted by undergrad students, Latinos and the godless Chinese). But profiting by forcing that same property through government-sanctioned censorship? That’s cool.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has employed the usual anti-terror talking points to the war on piracy. He stated that the ease by which individuals can counterfeit CDs allows “large-scale criminal enterprises to get involved in intellectual-property theft, and that involvement is used, quite frankly, to fund terrorist activities.”

In 2005, a lieutenant from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department testified in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that piracy is the new industry du jour for international terrorists. Specifically, the testimony cites that Hezbollah, one of 42 Foreign Terrorist Organizations as designated by the U.S. Department of State, has generated millions in cash via the illegal piracy trade. Thusly, Los Angeles County has allotted more funding for special piracy task forces and also has proposed a levy increase at Los Angeles’ ports.

Are all these expenditures worth it? Does piracy fund terrorism? Perhaps, but wouldn’t it be more sagacious to look at the macrocosm and ask, “What doesn’t fund terrorism these days?”