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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Copy

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Copy

by James Gannon

I was wrong. After years of reading intellectual property law blogs from some of the greatest legal minds, I’m finally ready to admit that I was wrong. The fight against illegal copying is one that cannot be won. I can no longer deny the simple truth that it is ultimately futile to try to create artificial scarcities of what would otherwise be nonscarce goods. The digital revolution has allowed us to copy and share media for free, and we should not let our antiquated laws stop us from enjoying these incredible technologies. It is time to fully embrace the digital revolution.

To be clear, I’m not talking about using P2P programs, cyberlockers, illegal streaming, or any other file-sharing technology.

I’m going to start printing my own money.

Gutenberg did not invent the printing press so that it would be controlled in the hands a few rich and powerful central bankers who desperately cling to outdated business models. With the advent of digital technologies, everyone can and should be free to copy money themselves.

New Business Models

Don’t get me wrong. As a citizen of Canada, I love the banknotes created by the Bank of Canada (BoC). In fact, I consider myself to be one of its biggest fans. Even though the BoC will attempt to stop me if I try to make my own copies of its bills, it should be flattered.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I only want to share the bank’s work with my friends and family. Allowing me to make copies might stimulate my friends to become fans of its currency too. Everyone knows the value of a currency is based on its demand, so why not try to get as many fans as possible?

It’s really the BoC’s fault for failing to adapt to the digital age and come up with new business models for its currency. It’s completely unrealistic for BoC to expect all its fans to keep getting only BoC copies of Canadian bills when the technology to make our own copies is available in everyone’s home. The big central banks need to adapt to the digital age and find new ways to monetize their monetary expertise. The era of monetary monopolies is over.

Why can’t they just go on tour and give lectures on monetary policy? Or they could start selling T-shirts—I know I’d buy one. The point is that the bank shouldn’t stop people from making their own copies of its works; instead BoC should just think of that as promotion for its tour or other revenue model. If it lets fans copy its existing bills, they will still all rush out to get the new ones when new designs come out. This kind of thing would encourage central banks to keep innovating and coming up with newer, more modern bills.

Personal Use

I completely understand why the government would want to shut down large-scale currency counterfeiters. If everyone is printing money instead of providing any goods or services, the Canadian dollar would probably hyperinflate. That’s not at all what I’m talking about.

When I start making my own copies of Canadian bills, it’s going to be strictly for my own personal use. Buying gas and groceries, paying bills, dinners at a nice restaurant or two maybe. Perhaps I’d share the bills with a few friends or family members, but I definitely wouldn’t be producing counterfeit bills on a commercial scale with the intent of reselling them. That would be wrong and hurtful to the economy, and that’s what anticounterfeit officers should really focus their efforts on. I find it appalling that the government would want to go after poor university students who are just making personal copies of currency in their dorms to share with their friends.

If the Canadian government is thinking of reforming our counterfeiting laws, they need to understand that private counterfeiting is a victimless crime. It won’t hurt the original creator in any way when I make my own personal copies of its bills. If I couldn’t print $1 million in Canadian $20s for myself, it’s not like I would have actually gone out and earned that money instead. This notion the big bankers have that every illegally printed dollar represents an economic loss is completely unrealistic. Plus, there are so many terrible foreign currencies out there these days, it’s only right that I should be able to try them out before I buy them.

Bankers Are Already Millionaires

Whenever the big central banks try to convince us not to make copies of their bills, we always hear these stories about the starving economists who are losing jobs because of counterfeiting. I understand that printing quality money can be hard and that a lot of economists and bankers work hard to balance our economy against recession and inflation. But these stories of starvation are completely exaggerated.

Last year, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of Canada, made over $400,000; it’s on the public record (businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_50/b4207037576499.htm). He also flies around all over the world to attend fancy G7 and G20 summits—all paid for by the BoC. So do I really feel bad for Carney when I decide to make copies of BoC bills? Absolutely not, and neither should you.

Let’s also be honest here—the whole idea of a “central bank” is really outdated in the digital age. All a person needs is a color scanner and printer to make money that’s just as good quality as the BoC stuff. In fact, when I go to stores and use my homemade Canadian money, I don’t expect anyone to be able to tell the difference. We should all recognize that the whole currency-printing industry is going through a big democratization phase where every amateur monetarist can make high-quality currency with a very basic setup. Getting rid of these dinosaur central banks is just the natural evolution of the currency industry.

Copy Protections Simply Don’t Work

A lot of people don’t know this, but for many years the BoC has been embedding technologies in its bills to prevent people from making illegal copies (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Counterfeit_money#Anti-counterfeiting_measures). Some of these anticounterfeiting measures include things like holograms or special polymer materials. I’m strongly opposed to this, and I think it only harms the consumer when banks use these technologies.

What about the consumer-protection implications of having a central bank place these technologies on bills that consumers have legally earned? Banks have no right to try to control our use of bills that we legally acquired. Did you know that it’s even illegal to own the tools to bypass these anticounterfeiting measures? Even if you don’t intend to do any illegal printing, just having circumvention tools is against S.458 of the Criminal Code. What if I just want to make backups of my bills in case my wallet gets stolen?

Here’s another thing that might surprise you—even copying devices have technologies that prevent counterfeit bill printing! So not only are there protection technologies on the media, but programs like Adobe Photoshop contain technological protections at the device level (adobe.com/special/products/photoshop/cds.html)! Regardless of what you think of using protection measures on the bills themselves, I think we can all agree that device-level protections against counterfeit bills are completely unacceptable.

What if I want to film a movie and need some fake money for a mob scene? As long as I can think of one legal example where I would want to copy bank bills, there is no justification for the use of technological measures to stop me from doing so.

In short, central banks need to start adapting right now to the Internet and digital age and give me one reason why I should earn their bills when I can easily make my own personal copies for free at home.

James Gannon is a lawyer in the Technology Group of McCarthy Tétrault LLP in Toronto. His practice focuses on intellectual property, technology, and Internet law issues.



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