I DON'T know many Americans who tolerate anyone treading on our Constitution.
Yet those individuals the recording industry recently sued for wanton copyright violations on the Internet, if found guilty, did exactly that. Every time someone downloads a commercial book, song, film or software program that they ought to pay for, they're not just committing a crime, they're spitting on our Constitution and devaluing the American way of life.
The Constitution is the blueprint that defines who and what we are as a country. Electing presidents, collecting taxes, raising armies, establishing courts - the Constitution covers the Big Stuff.
Neither murder nor massive corporate fraud merited a direct mention in the Constitution. Even free speech had to wait for the amendments. The Constitution is a lean document. Yet amid creating money and declaring war, there's this in Article I: "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."
This clause, part of a list of powers specifically granted to Congress, is the foundation of copyright law in the United States, the right of authors and artists to control who makes copies of their work. That means each case of copyright crime is a kick in the old "We the People."
In my multiple roles as professor, Internet pioneer and chairman of the Electronic Piracy Committee of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), I find myself speaking with many Internet pirates. Most are ordinary people who consider themselves good citizens. They simply don't understand copyrights and how they benefit society, let alone that the Founding Fathers believed the concept so important that they embodied it in the very fabric of our society.
This kind of ignorance is everywhere: The guy next door who thinks Napster-like software is cool for getting free music. Idiots posting books altered to fit their philosophy. Self-styled anarchists uploading entire libraries. Indeed, even some authors, artists and publishers are ignorant of the social purpose behind copyrights.
But if authors are from Mars and readers are from Venus, then copyright is a purely Earth-bound idea, rooted in the competitive checks and balances that make the Constitution great. The Founding Fathers hated restrictions on the public, yet felt this particular need was so strong that they took the unique step of explaining why it was important ("To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts").
The Founders established copyright law exclusively for the social good. It's built on a direct trade-off that carefully balances two equally important claims. One, there's the need of creators to maintain sufficient control - and, hence, earn enough income - so they'll be motivated to continue producing quality work. Two, there's the public's right to enjoy ready access to that work so they can be enriched by it.
Our elected representatives periodically update copyright laws to reflect new technologies, and nobody says they're perfect at it. In fact, anyone who wants to can work within the system to change it.
The copyright owner's limited right to control is, and should be, constantly weighed in delicate balance against the public's limited rights of "fair use" and to do as they wish with what they paid for. Note both sides are limited; that's the key.
The problem is that when someone downloads an entire copyrighted book, song or other creative work that they didn't pay for - and then uses it in a manner that's painfully obvious they should pay for - they're not just stealing money from the creator. They're also saying there's nothing wrong with ignoring the whole idea underlying copyright. They're saying it's perfectly fine to subvert the Constitution, and they're encouraging others to thumb their noses at the very framework that makes America great.
Internet pirates offer numerous rationalizations - from thinking they're Robin Hood fighting the Evil Corporate Greed monsters to comparing themselves to libraries to asserting that "information wants to be free." I've rebutted them all online: None holds water.
Democracy is hard work and demands responsibilities and education of all citizens. Don't let anyone tread on your Constitution just because they're too lazy to spend a few bucks.
Andrew Burt is a computer science professor at the University of Denver and a science fiction author. He may be reached via www.sfwa.org/epiracy.
Columnist Thomas L. Friedman is on vacation.