Would Thomas Jefferson Steal a DVD? Part I

Horror movies are not my only interest, as crazy as that may sound. I may have majored in Film Production, but I minored in Legal Studies, emphasizing in issues dealing with media and the law. Today, I'm going to talk about copyright. You might be thinking, "Eww, that's boring." However, it's something that should be paid attention to and easily impacts filmmakers/fans/bloggers/internet surfers because of its restrictions on First Amendment freedoms. My inspiration for sharing my copyright research with you guys came from an unfortunate incident that occurred with one of our fellow horror bloggers, J. Astro from The Cheap Bin. A post containing images found via Google search engine was disabled by Blogger, even though the pictures were (in some way) promoting a product. When I first heard about this story, I was intrigued and J. Astro was also concerned about the legal system in regards to intellectual property. Many people have questions about the origin of copyright/patent/trademark laws and how they can be justified in a political system that supposedly embraces Free Speech and in a technological world where information can be shared more quickly than ever.

Well, I conducted research for one of my classes on this subject matter and I take a rather unconventional approach, arguing that intellectual property must be dissolved. I recognize that it's an extreme position and hardly pragmatic, but it's worth a discussion. Since it is a very long paper, I will release it in sections over the next week or two. Here is Part I, introducing my thesis and explaining why copyright is more important to our freedoms than people think. Keep an eye out for Part II, which will explain the origin of intellectual property law.

Would Thomas Jefferson Steal a DVD?
The Rising Age of Technology and the Dissolving Philosophy of Copyright

"That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation." -Thomas Jefferson [1]

Most of us are familiar with the Motion Picture Association of America’s (MPAA) public relations campaign against piracy that played before feature presentations on DVD’s, especially because no matter how many times the fast-forward button was pushed; the message could not be skipped over. In 2004, the MPAA released its advertisement, “You Wouldn’t Steal a Car.” The script for the ad reads: “You wouldn’t steal a car; You wouldn’t steal a handbag; You wouldn’t steal a television; You wouldn’t steal a DVD; Downloading pirated films is stealing; stealing is against the law.” The “pervasive rhetorical use of the language of ‘theft’ in intellectual property discourse” creates a false definition of legal terminology through popular conception “so that new social meanings become attached to acts such as the digital transfer of a musical file or a film.”[1] This tactic is questionable not only because it employs subversive jargon but because it propagates ideas of intellectual property that are not founded in traditional legal philosophy. So many misconceptions surround copyright, patent, and trademark law that improper meanings have become commonplace in American government. The intended purpose of granting these exclusive rights monopolies has been misconstrued as a proponent of capitalism, private property, and democracy. While the whole of intellectual property must be reexamined, the primary focus of this paper shall be copyright and its impact on the artist. Copyright, originally designed to protect artists and promote creative endeavors, has become so far removed from the artist that it no longer serves the same purposes. Modern copyright law has been orchestrated to encourage the monopolization of the entertainment industry and thereby, hinders the creative process rather than securing it. And this imparts unforeseen consequences for American government.

It may not seem that art, culture, and entertainment have a foundation or niche in political philosophy. Yet, “[m]odern mass media in the industrial nations have transformed social relations, politics, and economic and legal structures.”[2] In Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, he focuses on the TV among an assortment of other technologies as a threat to the ideals of the American political system. Mander declares that the medium cannot be reformed and must be terminated. He writes, “technology can produce its own subordinated society, as though it were alive”[3] and that TV lacks “democratic control.”[4] Americans believe that they are deciding what to watch simply because there is access to hundreds of channels, but Mander points out that a small number of corporations actually decide what is broadcast and what is not. To further elucidate the feeling of democracy, $41.8 billion dollars were spent on advertising in 2001 so that Americans could choose between McDonald’s and Burger King, Sears and JC Penny, Republicans and Democrats.[5] “Scientists, technologists, psychologists, industrialists, economists and the media which translate and disseminate their findings and opinions became our source” of information and source of decision.[6] Yet, we forget that there are choices beyond what is presented. Two thirds of Americans receive most of their information about the world from the television.[7] Americans champion themselves as independent, free-thinkers; yet we all rely on the same source of information—how diverse and free can our ideas then be? The media generates a façade of democracy through the illusion of choice, but how do we know what choices we are never allowed to make? What is not seen, heard, or experienced?

The free exchange of ideas is crucial to the government that Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and Framer of the United States Constitution, foresaw. That is exactly why copyright law is not and should not be the dry subject of textbooks. It is as essential to democracy that intellectual property be seriously reconsidered as it is important to address economic strife, failures in public education, and jumps in criminal activity. In a technological landscape where ideas and media are inseparable, copyright law ought to be paid attention to because it “imposes substantial risks of harm to democracy and individual autonomy.”[8]

[1] (Loughlan 2007, 1)
[2] (Bagdikian 2004, xiii)
[3] (Mander 1978, 97)
[4] (Ibid, 353)
[5] (50th Anniversary of 'Wonderful World of Color' TV" 2004)
[6] (Mander 1978, 69)
[7] (McKibben 1993, 18)
[8] (Benkler 2003, 175)


  1. "The media generates a facade of democracy through the illusion of choice, but how do we know what choices we are never allowed to make? What is not seen, heard, or experienced?"

    Great stuff - and I don't even have any cable or TV. But the internet is rapidly creeping into that same territory... I can't wait for the next installment!

  2. the posturing (and admittedly rather irritating) little popinjayNovember 12, 2009 at 4:45 AM

    Becky, you`re obviously a chick of incredibly high interlect (and you`re a gorgeous little darlin` as well if you dont mind me saying so) but all i know is that if its a fixed camera positioned directly beneath the projector by a crooked projectionist the picture quality on those 3 dollar pirate DVD`s is almost as good (90 to 95%) as the proper official DVD`s that come out 6 months later and cost 20 dollars. Dont be afraid of the future Becky its where you`re gonna` be living for the next 70 years. By the way, i think the best thing about Jefferson was the fact that he was an atheist.

  3. It's creepy isn't it? Of course any time law, especially copyright law, is going to creep into the creative process, that creative process is going to be negated.

    The Cavalcade was censored one time awhile back - it scared me and seriously left me feeling very weird. Again, a very creepy feeling.

    Excellent post, Becky, and I'm diggin' the new banner as well. Rock on!

  4. This is an excellent topic. Jefferson couldn't have foreseen the multinational corporation or the digital landscape in which we find ourselves. I recommend Lawrence Lessig's 'Code 2.0' for some excellent insight into the nature of intellectual property, regulation, and ownership in a culture interwoven with a digital infrastructure.

  5. Ack and once we get to the meat of the paper Becks pulls the plug =D

    I love to complain about copyright law and free speech, but what it comes down to is I am no better than the gross majority of the nation mentioned in your paper, and I rely just as heavily on 1-2 newssources on network TV if not just Yahoo News for my daily intake. Granted, I really dont care about anything going on outside of my own feeble existence.

    Looking forward to the next installment!