Dvorak: 'Pirate Tax' Might Get Hollywood to Shut Up About File-Sharing

I'm not sure how many people even remember audio cassettes. They are still the best medium for long audio books and for recording music easily.

In fact, during their heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, audio cassettes were used to copy so much music that a pirate tax was levied on every blank cassette sold, with few users realizing it.

DAT cassettes were similarly taxed in an extremely complicated scheme outlined in the Congressional Audio Home Recording Act of 1992.

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This was after so much bickering that the DAT cassette never managed to become successful among consumers. Who says that our Congress doesn't work directly for Hollywood?

I cannot personally make heads or tails of the act, the royalty structure, or anything in between, but I reckon payments are made and now nobody is complaining. And we already know that analog audio cassettes were taxed too.

In Canada, they tax blank CDs. There the tax is called a levy, since it doesn't benefit the government and is done at the behest of Hollywood. The current levy is 21 cents per CD-R.

They also levy a flat $25 on any hard disk in an MP3 player for the same reasons. (This Web site follows that process: http://neil.eton.ca/copylevy.shtml.)

There seems to me to be some element of racketeering here, but who is going to do anything about it if the government is in bed with the racketeers?

That said, I'd like to know if it would shut them (the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America) up if we implemented these sorts of levies on blank media and MP3 devices in the U.S.

We've already done it with cassettes, and nobody seemed to complain about it.

Would it mean that the music and movie moguls would go after real pirates in Southeast Asia rather than some kids in Texas?

Maybe we should ask them if it would be enough to just give them money, regardless of whether we even listened to music, let alone made copies.

It's hard to get accurate sales figures on CD-Rs, but the billion-disc market first appeared in 2000 and was doubling every year. So a conservative guess at five billion blank discs seems reasonable.

If a 20-cent levy is added to the discs, that would be a cool billion dollars to be dropped into the already bulging coffers of Hollywood's entertainment industry. Would a billion dollars a year shut them up?

We certainly did not hear a lot of complaining during the cassette era when there was a pirate tax in play.

So who does this tax/levy benefit? Does it benefit the small starving artist who might actually have more pirated music out there because of distribution problems?

Of course not. It benefits a few supergroups who are already loaded, and it benefits the big-record-company executives looking to upgrade their jet fleets to something more comfortable. Small fry need not apply.

Personally, I'm sick of all the RIAA/MPAA B.S. and bickering over piracy. Does anyone think that this is going to end anytime soon, and does anyone think that digital-rights management strategies are anything more than wishful thinking?

All of us observers are almost as bad as the industry groups. We tell them to change their business model. We call them creeps and idiots and shake a fist in the air when the topic arises. We try to point out that their business actually improves with new technologies, but they are not seeing it that way.

Would a levy end the debate? Would you be willing to send the music and movie industry $20 every time you bought a spindle of blank CD-Rs or DVDs? What does anyone do with 100 blank discs? Is there $20 worth of downloaded music there someplace?

The only real solution to the nagging file-sharing problem is indeed a pirate tax, a levy.

Nobody likes the idea. Nobody will like this column for suggesting it. Nobody who actually needs the money will benefit.

But it will perhaps end all this bickering and arbitrary legal action. And you paid this tax with cassettes once already. Why didn't you complain then?

Either do the tax, or declare every movie and piece of music public domain by law once it is released to the public. That would stop the bickering too. You choose.

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