Thursday, January 19, 2012


Piracy vs. Censorship

The current row is over a conflict between producers of entertainment and Internet users who fear government censorship.  There are two bills now in Congress waiting to be voted on.  What I've read about them is that they intend to protect producers of songs, movies, and other entertainment that can be viewed by Internet users for an implicit fee.  That is, I can view or listen to the protected stuff if I am willing to look at advertisements, or perhaps join a membership group with dues and the ability to view or listen to the material.  The laws are intended to punish Internet sites, particularly sites outside the United States, that make the protected stuff available for no fee.  One fear is that the law, if enacted, could lead to censorship of many domestic sites that provide entertainment information.  I might produce something for a domestic site that was like something protected by copyright, either intentionally or inadvertently.  The owner of the material that I had allegedly copied or plagiarized could sue the offending site or, better still, complain to the federal government and have the site shut down.

This controversy points to a defect in our system of protecting the rights and income of inventors, artists, and other creative persons.  Our constitution permits the federal government to issue patents and copyrights.  These documents provide that the owner (inventor, artist, etc.) has the exclusive right to make, perform, publish, license, etc., the protected item for a certain number of years.  The idea is to reward creativity and innovation.  The duration of the right or monopoly is long enough for the creator to receive a profit for his or her creation.

With many products and artistic creations this simple system works well.  Successful artists prosper.  Artists without talent fail.  However, in a few cases the system produces a bad result.  Let us suppose that someone had developed a cure for HIV AIDS.  It's a magic pill, 100 percent effective.  Naturally, this inventor either sets up a factory to manufacture the pill himself or licenses a pharmaceutical firm to do so.  He stands to obtain a fortune from his creation.  Anyone with AIDS and enough money to buy the pills will do so.  The bad effect is that people with AIDS who can't afford the pill will have to do without and take their chances on less expensive medication that won't provide a cure.  How do we handle that seeming inequity?

One answer is that the pharmaceutical company or the inventor can simply make available doses of the medication for those who can't pay.  That's not a completely satisfactory solution.  Suppose not enough pills are set aside.  Then, some poor victims of AIDS will still go untreated.

My solution is to create a nonprofit institution, funded mainly by government, charged with the responsibility of selecting new medical treatments, buying the patent rights, and having them manufactured and distributed at either no cost to the patients or at a low enough cost that all patients can afford them.  These treatments would be selected on the basis of ultimate value to the community.  The selection would be limited to treatments that cure life-threatening ailments and the like.  Things that merely improve quality of life a small amount, such as Viagra, would not be selected.

Comments? Suggestions? Figurative cabbages and tomatoes?

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