Senators Orrin Hatch and Patrick Leahy have introduced a new bill, the PIRATE Act, that would authorize the U.S. government to bring civil lawsuits against copyright infringers, and would create a $2 million fund to pay for such suits. (Copyfight has the details.) Rather than doing this, it would be more efficient simply to give copyright owners the $2 million in cash, and let them decide whom to sue, or not to file suits at all.
If spending $2 million on lawsuits will deter enough infringement to increase (the present value of) future copyright revenues by more than $2 million, then copyright owners will find it in their interest to file the suits themselves. If not, then the government has no business filing the suits, since doing so would burn $2 million of government money to create a benefit of less than $2 million. So let’s save ourselves the trouble, and just give the cash to the RIAA and MPAA.
Criminal enforcement by the government might make sense, since private parties can’t bring criminal actions. But civil suits brought by the government, on the same terms those suits could be brought by copyright owners, can only be inefficient.
Worst of all, asking the Department of Justice to spend its valuable time and attention on small-fry copyright suits carries a high opportunity cost. The DoJ has much more important things to do. Copyright infringement is bad, but it’s hardly the greatest threat we face.