Property is Theft….Or is it the Other Way Around?

PROPERTY IS THEFT….OR IS IT THE OTHER WAY AROUND?….The RIAA, following up on its ominous threats of a couple of weeks ago, is now issuing a blizzard of subpoenas compelling internet providers to release the names and addresses of people who have been making songs available for sharing over the internet:

The RIAA declined to say Friday how many subpoenas it plans to obtain ? although court officials said they were issuing them at the rate of about 75 a day. Nor was it clear whether the record companies would sue every person identified through the subpoenas.

“What we don’t know is whether the numbers will eventually slow,” said Sarah Deutsch, associate general counsel of Verizon Communications Inc., which has received about 150 subpoenas, or whether the blitz is “the beginning of something we’ll be seeing for a long time.”

One thing seems certain: The RIAA has no plans to send warning letters to the people it targets. Instead, they will simply be sued.

This will undoubtedly set off a technology war as people try to keep their files online anonymously, but I have a feeling that, when push comes to shove, the RIAA strategy will be fairly successful. Why? Because it’s going to scare people.

See, over at the Volokh Conspiracy a few days ago, Tyler Cowen was musing about why people think it’s OK to steal music but not, for example, OK to steal food. This prompted much learned discussion, but I think this is a case where the correct explanation is also the simplest and most obvious one: it’s because people don’t think they can get caught stealing music. If it ever became clear that you could take bread from supermarkets with absolute impunity, the theft rate would skyrocket.

This is a dim view of human nature, I know, and most of you are probably sure that you wouldn’t start stealing bread even if you had a cloak of invisibility, but I don’t believe you. Sorry. Most of us might obey the law due to long and dreary socialization, but at the core of that socialization is the fear of being hauled off to jail by burly guys in blue uniforms. Those burly guys are apparently about to start showing up at your computer, and I suspect that socialization is not far behind.

(Not sure you want to take my word for this? According to the LA Times article linked above, 68% of teenagers say they would stop downloading music “if there were a serious risk” of being fined or jailed. Any further questions?)