- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

The imperative to protect the rights of property owners is something the founding generation of Americans understood. They understood it as a moral value and as an economic necessity for any nation that sought to be strong, free and prosperous.

The founders also understood that the definition of property, and the attendant rights, could not be limited to those tangible things such as currency, livestock, homes, manufactured goods or any other things that individuals might own. Creations of the mind and imagination — music, art, literature, scientific discovery and inventions — were the hallmarks of a free and growing society, were property and had to be protected.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution reads: [Congress shall have the power]: To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

They rightly understood that the real engine of economic growth for America would be the creative brilliance of the American people. And they knew that those products of the intellect and imagination were more vulnerable to theft and exploitation than a tangible piece of property that one could see being stolen. To put it more simply: It would be harder to miss someone walking off with your horse than to see someone walking off with your song. As someone raised on country and western music, I am particular to protecting both quarter horses and music.

And as an economist, former congressman, co-founder of Freedom Works and champion of the rights of property owners, I am watching with keen interest the actions of the Supreme Court in the case of MGM v. Grokster.

Grokster is a peer to peer (P2P) network that allows members to “share” songs, movies, software and other creative works without paying for them.

Taking something for free that you would otherwise have to pay for is called stealing. You can’t walk into a store and take a music CD, a DVD movie or software for a computer game without paying for it. Yet everyday, tens of millions of copyright-protected songs, movies, computer games and other pieces of intellectual property are downloaded for free — stolen over Grokster and other similar P2P networks.

Grokster doesn’t just turn a blind eye to the theft — what I’d call willful ignorance — but encourages it in order to make millions of dollars in advertising revenues each year based on the number of people who steal copyright-protected property. There is little dispute that more than 90 percent of the activity that Grokster profits from is illegal. And their profits rise in direct proportion to the amount of theft. That’s a racket worthy of Tony Soprano.

Grokster could employ technology to stop the theft of copyrighted material, but it refuses to do so because that would force it to compete in the free market with legitimate networks like Napster, Movielink and Cinema Now that offer music, movies and games at a fair market price. But illegitimate networks such as Grokster make it almost impossible for those legitimate businesses to compete.

While millions of songwriters, screenwriters, artists, technicians, recording engineers, movie technicians and others are the individual victims of this massive, ongoing theft, the damage to our culture and to the free market economy that has made America the beacon of freedom and opportunity is immeasurable.

If the Supreme Court does not stop Grokster from engaging in and promoting these activities, the message to our children is that — should they strive to turn their dreams into music, art, literature or software — they may not be able to earn a living, even if their creations are wildly popular. The message to the rest of the world: The United States will not protect intellectual property from techno-thieves.

Intellectual property is one of America’s leading exports. In times when the United States already has an enormous trade deficit, we can hardly stand by and let our innovation be stolen in broad daylight over the Internet. For example, how can we ask other nations to crack down on software piracy if we don’t try to stop intellectual property theft here at home? We can’t unless we want to be laughed at by the Asian, Eastern European and Middle Eastern nations where piracy of American intellectual property is rampant.

Throughout our nation’s history, it has been the dreamers, the risk takers, the most creative individuals who fueled the engine of our prosperity. American ingenuity made the American economy the envy of the world. If Grokster is permitted to continue its activities, it will kill the incentive for many of those risk takers to invest in their dreams.

Our marketplace in creative property will no longer be a place where competition spurs ingenuity and benefits the consumer. And America will no longer be the land of unlimited opportunity unless you happen to run a racket like Grokster.

Former House Majority leader Richard K. Armey is co-chairman of Freedom Works. He is also senior policy adviser to DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, a law firm that represents RIAA and MPAA.

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