The Copyright Divide
By PETER K. YU - Michigan State University College of Law
Most recently, the recording industry filed 261 lawsuits against individuals who illegally downloaded and distributed a large amount of music via peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, such as KaZaA, Grokster, iMesh, and Gnutella. Although the industry's recent approach was controversial and resulted in major criticisms from legislators, academics, civil libertarians, consumer advocates, and university officials, the copyright holders' aggressive tactics are not new.
In fact, copyright holders have been known for using, or encouraging their government to use, coercive power to protect their creative works. Only a decade ago, the U.S. copyright industries have lobbied their government to use strong-armed tactics to coerce China into protecting intellectual property rights. Succumbing to U.S. trade pressure, the Chinese authorities eventually raided pirate factories and handed out harsh penalties, including the death penalty and life imprisonment in severe cases, on their citizens.
The similarities between the RIAA and China stories were more than a coincidence and could be further linked to a third story. That story took place two centuries ago when the United States was still a less developed country. At that time, book piracy was rampant, and the United States was considered one of the most notorious pirating nations in the world.
This Article brings together, for the first time, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, twentieth-century China, and twenty-first-century cyberspace and analyzes them using a cross-cultural, cross-systemic, cross-temporal, and cross-sectoral approach. This Article not only highlights the striking similarities among the three stories, but also argues that these similarities provide insight into the war on piracy, intellectual property law reforms, and international harmonization efforts.
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