Copyright Czar to Wage War on Pirates

October 8, 2008 | | Comments Off on Copyright Czar to Wage War on Pirates

When I first read about legislation proposing a “copyright czar” (PDF), my first thought was: why are we using ancient monarchical terms to describe a man in our democratic federal government?  The copyright czar will, of course, have to be a man, because the word “czar” is gendered – as far as I can tell from the definitive and authoritative Wikipedia, there’s never been a only been one woman czar(ina), so sorry ladies, you may already be out of the running.  And if we’re going to use fairy tale vocabulary (thanks, drug czar, for starting that trend), what’s next?  The Trademark Baron?  The Patent Troll?  (Actually, that one’s already taken).  Last time I checked, words still have meaning, and so I was puzzled by the choice of one which, as far as I know, means dictator (or, at best, Anastasia’s dad).

While copyright czar is not the technical term used in the legislation, the common usage of the title in the press implies that his function will be far-reaching and authoritative.  Using the title copyright czar seems to vest the holder with a certain power – one that comes with an illimitable reach, unquestionable authority, and, perhaps, free iTunes downloads.  The legislative title for the position is, in fact, Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator.  It’s IPEC for short, which when sounded out letter-by-letter sounds vaguely scatological, although it’s phonetically superior to its predecessor, the National IP Law Enforcement Coordination Council (NIPLECC).

The copyright czar will undoubtedly have the ability, established (again) by the drug czar, to “wage war.”  “War on Drugs”, meet “War on Pirates.”  Not a bad name for a cause, and one which certainly meets all the fairy tale nomenclature requirements.  All joking aside, IPEC is tasked with the fairly daunting task of preventing piracy and coordinating anti-piracy efforts across multiple government agencies both at home and abroad.  But with all the power imputed by his lofty title, how can we (as law-abiding students) be assured that we won’t all be prosecuted, for example, every time we give our girlfriend a mixtape of her favorite songs?

Fortunately, it seems that many of the legislators who drafted the bill also have girlfriends, because they included the following limitation on IPEC’s power:

The IPEC may not control or direct any law enforcement agency, including the Department of Justice, in the exercise of its investigative or prosecutorial authority.”

Opponents of the legislation were thrilled to see this limitation, as it prevents IPEC from acting as an in-(White)house litigator for the MPAA and Hollywood.  But to expect that IPEC will refrain entirely from involvement with any law enforcement agency would be naive, and would actually controvert its purpose (which is to liase with law enforcement and other government agencies).  So, where do “control” and “direction” end, and involvement and persuasion begin?  The IPEC reports first and foremost to the President and is empowered to “carry out…other functions as the President may direct.”  The President does have the power to direct law enforcement agencies, and may certainly do so on the advice of IPEC, as may the Attorney General.  It seems to me that while the specific language of the legislation purports to prevent abuse of IPEC’s power, that obstacle can be readily (and at least quasi-legally) circumvented by the executive branch.

Moral of the story: Pirates beware.

UPDATE: The measure creating IPEC has been signed into law.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ioan Sameli.

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