Photocopying copyrighted material is just plain stealing

President Laura Chinchilla has before her a bill that would authorize theft. She may sign it.

This is the exemption from an earlier law that protected the rights of authors and publishers. Before her is  N° 17342 that was passed overwhelmingly by legislators.

The proposed law would permit the photocopying of materials for academic purposes without penalty. Operators of photocopying shops have ceased reproducing texts illegally because they fear stiff penalties in the relatively new law.

Basically the Asamblea Legislativa said that students and photocopying shops are allowed to steal because they are doing so for a good purpose. We think lawmakers also ought to make their personal vehicles available for students who need transportation to colleges. And maybe they should let students drop by a dinnertime if they are hungry.

Costa Rican laws and culture lack an absolute on property rights. We have seen this with squatters on real estate. Other countries punish those who move onto private land. But lawmakers here in the distant past thought it would be a good idea for landless persons to just take land from others so they could grow crops and feed their families. Now such invasions are a business with the invaders eventually selling their rights to middlemen who then make deals with hotels and others.

A certain element of Costa Rican society also thinks that stealing is fine if the victim is a rich person or a foreigner. Light-fingered maids and neighbors are facts of life.

Now lawmakers have institutionalized this attitude with a bill to encourage theft of published and copyrighted materials. They argue that the rich multinationals who make these books can afford the loss in sales, and, anyway, the books are too expensive.

A letter to President Chinchilla by Costa Rican book publishers Friday rejected that idea and said the firms already were losing sales in anticipation of the president signing the legislation. Óscar Arias Sánchez, when he was president, signed a decree that basically allowed bars and restaurants to play copyrighted music without compensating the creators.

So Ms. Chinchilla would be following in the steps of her mentor to create socialized textbooks. But it will not be just texts.

The change in the law would open the photocopying floodgates.

The result of the proposed change in the law will be for foreign publishers to withhold needed books from Costa Rica. Perhaps some folks at the legislature or Casa Presidential could pen a few local texts on partial differential equations or anatomy or pharmaceuticals or strength of materials. But they won’t because there is no money in it. The students will just steal the material by photocopying it.

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