The tax on future, alleged guilt

(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

The hidden cost of software on all citizens, including those who don’t even use a computer, has been already described at the beginning of this book. In addition to all that, there is another tax forced on all students, families, schools and businesses from the entertainment industry.

What’s in the price of most digital devices

Since all bits are equal, today it is possible to store any data, including music or movies, on any object which is able to store bits. This fact of life causes all families and companies to spend more than it’s necessary on digital devices and media, without even knowing where all the extra money goes. Here are some examples.

In November 2006 Microsoft announced it had agreed to pay Universal Music Group (UMG) a portion of the revenue from sales of all its digital entertainment device Zune.

An anti piracy law presented in Sweden in 2005 included the proposal to triple the price of blank DVDs in order to guarantee “proper payment for their work” to musicians and film-makers. For the same reason, Canada has a 21 cent levy on every blank CD media and a 77 cent one for each for CD-R Audio, CD-RW Audio and MiniDiscs. In February 2007 the Canada’s Private Copyright Collective asked for an 8 cent increase of these levies. Besides that, and always as a way to “compensate artists for unauthorized copying of their music”, the Collective also proposed several levies on any digital recording medium, from 2 to 10 dollars on each of the memory cards used almost exclusively to store pictures in digital cameras, to a 26 per cent increase (from 290 to 365 dollars) on the street price of music players like the Apple’s 30GB iPod.

In 2005, the cost of a CD-burner in Germany included 7.50 Euro of compensation for illegal copying: the levy on blank CDs was 9 cents and 17.4 cents for each blank DVD. According to a Rightscom report quoted by the International Herald Tribune, in 2004 alone the consumers in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain paid 542 million Euros of fees of this kind on everything from copying machines to TV set-top boxes. A few years ago VG Wort, the German collection agency for copyright fees, asked for a 30 Euro levy on each new computer. Cell phones which can also play music are next in the list in several countries, as well as the hard disks used to store data in every computer or fast, flat-rate Internet connection used to download files from the Internet.

Today levies like the one described above exist, in one form or another, in most countries of the world. Especially in Europe, as the public policy director of the Business Software Alliance put it in 2005, there is a system of semi-autonomous collection agencies “that are no longer responsive to public opinion or pressure”. The result is that some hardware companies have already decided in the past to not sell some of their most economic music players at all in some countries: the percentage price increase due to the levies would have made those products too expensive for their target market.

The damage from copyright levies on the hardware industry is not to be undervalued, since it may indeed lead to fewer jobs in that sector. Equipment and hardware manufacturers, however, officially are in favor of “replacing levies… in the digital environment” with something that may be even worse, that is DRM.

Besides that, the main reason to worry about this particular Digital Danger is that it costs a lot to all families with a motivation and in ways that, regardless of how much money is involved, are absurd, really unjust even in principle and, in practice, impossible to apply according to their official purpose.

The basic assumption behind all these levies is always the same and remains unbearable: everybody is “guilty unless proven innocent” or, more exactly, “surely guilty”, so he or she must pay in advance for their potential, future crimes.

This is similar to sending everybody who buys a bottle of liquor or a car to prison, the day they buy them, because statistically they do have a probability of getting drunk and killing somebody some day. Such a principle is exactly the opposite of what is practiced by all the civilized legal systems in the world: if anybody tried to apply it explicitly, rather than through levies on digital devices by semi-private, almost totally autonomous agencies, he or she would be in serious trouble before any Court, or at the next election.

Of course, there is no doubt that copying beyond fair use or unauthorized redistribution of music, movies and so on is illegal and unfair to the creators and performers of those works. It is also undeniable that there are too many people, especially younger ones, who use computers, music players or DVDs mainly to store and play illegally copied materials, hiding behind noble-sounding repetitions of ideals which they don’t really understand or care about.

(continues here)