Novelist and music-industry expert Rob Reid has written an amusing satirical look at the high price of (being found guilty of) copyright violation on Ars Technica. When damages are set at $150,000 a song—more than the price of a five-bedroom home—it can start to seem a little ridiculous. This means, Reid points out, that a $249 iPod Classic can hold about $8 billion worth of music. (While it’s written from the perspective of digital music, it applies equally well to digital books. Indeed, since e-books are so much smaller than songs, a single Kindle or iOS device could probably hold several orders of magnitude greater value in pirated works.)

Piracy apologists will dismiss the measures of value reflected in trillion-dollar lawsuits, $8 billion iPods, and our $150,000 piracy law (1999’s Copyright Damages Improvement Act). They’ll make flimsy claims about the law being "bought" by “media interests” from “senators” who are so rapacious that’s they’ve quite literally lost their sense of the absurd, resulting in laws that are so disproportionate, grasping, and harebrained that they can barely even be parodied.

But I have no time for that sort of cynicism. Laws and the penalties levied for breaking them are unalloyed reflections of a society’s priorities. Viewed through this lens, the piracy of a single copy of a single song is roughly 300 times worse than driving drunk in New York state (which carries a $500 maximum fine). That’s because while drunk driving can cost lives, music piracy is known to lead to meth addiction, human cannibalism, and societal collapse.`

Reid proposes applying data storage prefixes to dollars when describing digital piracy, since it makes the large numbers to which the advance of technology will inevitably lead more readily understandable. Thus, his iPod would hold eight GigaDollars’ worth of music.

Should Copyright Damages be Improved further by future laws (and why not—it has been 13 years now, and the prevailing $150,000 penalty hasn’t even been adjusted for inflation), we could soon enter the realm of ZetaDollars ($ZD). The biggest denomination of data is the Yottabyte. Its counterpart, the YottaDollar ($YD), is $1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.00, which exceeds the world’s annual economic output by a factor of several billion. That may sound like a lot—but if present trends continue, content piracy will cost us over a YottaDollar per day by the end of the decade.

I have to say, I love a good satire. It’s easy to complain about the obnoxiousness of some of these figures, but nothing really drives the point home like public ridicule.


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