This LA Times article reports on consumer attitudes in LA about “piracy” of goods. Of course, the author (Richard Verrier) seems mortally confused about the differences between trademark and copyright.
Although previous studies have documented piracy’s toll on the Los Angeles economy, the U.S. Chamber report is the first to focus on the attitudes and behavior of consumers here who knowingly buy fake goods, including bootleg movies, illegally copied CDs, knockoff handbags and counterfeit auto parts.
“The study confirmed what we already knew: That the buying of these products is widespread and is viewed as a victimless crime,” said Caroline Joiner, executive director of the chamber’s global anti-counterfeiting and piracy initiative.
Of course, since trademark laws are designed to protect the consumer against confusion, if the consumer isn’t confused then there is neither crime nor victim. That doesn’t stop the government from trying to stop imports from China of counterfeit goods, but is this really the best way to spend our money? Wouldn’t we all really rather our good-inspection dollars be spent on looking for lead in children’s toys and poisons in our cat food? (Or, hell, how about bombs and suitcase nukes?)
The bottom line is that companies treat their trademarks like property, and work very hard to get governments to do the same. Traditionally trademark enforcement has been handled by the trademark owners, as it should be. Trademark owners have cost/benefit analyses to apply to enforcement. So they take on only the serious threats, and make reasonable decisions about what to pursue and not to pursue.
Shifting those costs to the public — which is what trademark (and copyright) owners want to do — means that companies owners can be as persnickety as they want about their rights, regardless of the human cost. Hence the cost to taxpayers of, what, probably thousands of dollars in pressing criminal charges against a 19 year old girl for recording 20 seconds of a film in a movie theater. (She ended up pleading guilty, by the way, paying a $71 fine and having a criminal record for at least a year.) She was prosecuted under a new Virginia bootleg law, intended to beef up federal copyrights with state criminal law.
But the public benefit to putting public funds toward policing private trademarks is negligible, even less than the putative benefit of policing private copyrights. Again, trademarks are designed to protect the consumer against being defrauded. If consumers are happily and knowingly buying knock-offs and counterfeits, then no consumers are being defrauded. There is no public good to justify use of public funds and the full weight of the state’s mechanisms of criminal law against vendors or buyers. While to my knowledge no state has tried to criminalize the purchase of counterfeit trademark goods, I will be wholly unsurprised to see such legislation sometime in the next ten years. Combining the government’s ramping up of trademark & copyright enforcement with the trend in legislation to get at tertiary support of illegal activities is not much of a reach.
Consider this ominous quote, for instance:
Nonetheless, Joiner drew encouragement from another finding: Seventy-two percent of the respondents believed counterfeiting and piracy laws should be stricter, and 90% said they wouldn’t have acquired the fake products if they knew doing so supported organized crime.
So, can we now look to Hollywood to tell us that the mob is behind filesharing? They’ve already linked P2P to child porn and terrorism so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.
Suggesting that Americans “get” IP law but just aren’t that interested in following it, Justin Hughes at Cardozo opined that “Most Americans do understand copyright and trademark laws ….” Not if crappy news reporting is where they get their information, they don’t. And while the IP policy cognoscenti may argue back & forth about the benefits and costs of IP, the lobbyists for Hollywood are happy for Americans to not get the full picture. The US Chamber of Commerce (which commissioned this survey from Gallup) might like to consider asking Americans, not just whether or not they think stronger C/TM laws are in order, but to do some ranking of customs & law enforcement priorities: bootleg purses? or lead-paint on toys. crappy recordings of crappy movies? or mad cow disease-infected beef.