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It’s becoming increasingly popular to extend legal responsibility for illegal behavior way beyond the person who actually commits the crime. Bartenders are sued or even charged criminally if a person who buys alcohol from them drives drunk. Gun owners are blamed if criminals steal their weapons and commit murder or robbery. Parents are fined if their teenage children skip school, even if the parent has delivered the child to the schoolhouse door. Vehicle owners get tickets if their cars run red lights – even if they weren’t driving.

The concept of holding others responsible has been extended into the copyright arena, too. The recording industry has been sending letters to colleges, threatening to hold them responsible if students download music illegally from their university accounts. ISPs have been served with subpoenas requiring and threatened with legal action if they don’t cooperate with RIAA in suing their customers who are accused of illegal downloading.

Recently there has been a big drive to expand the laws to encompass more and more the concept of “secondary copyright infringement” – holding software makers and hardware manufacturers responsible if people use their products to exploit copyrights.

Some legal experts are referring to this movement as “copyright panic” – an emotional state that results in the passage of harsher and harsher laws that make it more and more difficult for the public to use copyrighted material, even legally.

Indeed, there seems to some sort of strong feeling at work. Not that many years ago, copyright infringement was a purely civil matter. If you violated it, you could be sued by the copyright holder in civil court. And you still can – but now making a copy of that DVD movie can also get you arrested by the FBI, put in prison for five years and fined $250,000 per copy. In the past, it wasn’t a crime unless you did it for monetary gain. Now it’s a federal offense even if there’s no monetary gain involved at all.

As a professional writer, I make my living producing intellectual property, so I am no advocate of piracy. However, I believe the increasingly draconian laws being pushed by the movie studios, RIAA and other representatives of copyright holders are going to backfire (and, in fact, already are backfiring).

The more intrusive copyright protection technology gets, the more difficult it makes it for consumers to use legally purchased material, the more likely they become to either turn to illegal venues to get it or just stop consuming it at all. In either case, the copyright holders lose more money than before. It’s a simple fact of business that you can’t make all your customers mad at you and stay in business.

And it’s not just their customers that they’re going after. Courts have held that file sharing networks can be held liable because people use them to exchange copyrighted files illegally, that parents or grandparents can be held liable when their children use their computers to share files illegally without the computer owner’s knowledge, and that technology makers can be held responsible if their customers use their software to “rip” copy protected songs or movies.

The implications of such decisions are far-reaching and a little frightening. If software makers are responsible for how people use their programs, that opens up a Pandora’s Box of immense proportions. If a kidnapper uses Word to create a ransom note, can Microsoft be held liable? If a child pornographer uses PhotoShop to crop obscene images of kids, is Adobe responsible? If an extortionist sends threatening email from a Gmail account, is that Google’s fault?

It doesn’t have to be limited to software makers, either. If that child pornographer uses a Seagate hard disk to store the images, didn’t Seagate make technology that “enabled” him to commit the crime of possessing such images? You can see where this is going. And you might say such extrapolations are ridiculous. Two decades ago, I’d have agreed with you that the legal system would never become that skewed. Today, I’ve seen laws passed that are just as ridiculous and unbelievable.

As I’ve said before, we are fast headed toward a world in which it’s impossible for anyone to avoid being charged with a crime. Almost every human activity that’s considered in the least way undesirable or potentially dangerous is becoming criminalized. And now you don’t even have to be the one who engages in the illegal activity to be held responsible for it.

Many of those who advocate passing all these laws talk a lot about “personal responsibility” – yet they’re diluting the whole idea of personal responsibility when they seek to hold persons responsible for what someone else does.

And these laws ultimately hurt us, the public. Just as the cost of health care has skyrocketed because doctors must buy high priced insurance to protect them from frivolous malpractice suits, if software vendors are held liable for what people do with their software, the cost of software will go so high that many people won’t be able to afford it. And many vendors will stop making software altogether. They’ll go into some other, safer business, and software innovation will slow or stop. And we’ll all be the worse off for it.

What do you think? Should software and hardware vendors be held responsible for what people do with their products? How about ISPs and those who run large networks such as universities? Should they be held liable for what users do on their networks? Do the increasingly harsh copyright laws really protect creators of intellectual property or will they backfire and result in less income to those copyright holders?

Deb Shinder, MVP