Every once in a while, you need to read something that really riles you up. Thus, I just read Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig.
Lessig's book is really well done. He starts off with the history of the contemporary West's notions about intellectual "property", showing how the recording and film industries benefitted, once upon a time, from the availability of others' work in the public domain. He then explains the lengths these and other industries are going to today to dismantle that same public domain.
The book is rather US-centric, but the US are the centre of this international problem, so I didn't mind so much. Lessig is a law professor at Stanford, who has spoken before the American Supreme Court on this topic (this case before the Court is one of the more juicy episodes in the book).
Lessig goes beyond just pointing out that downloading a song is not the same thing as stealing the CD from the store. He proposes moderate solutions to current copyright issues. His solutions have been endorsed by American lawmakers, but unfortunately haven't become American law.
I don't know if you've noticed, but copyright terms keep getting longer and longer. This has the effect of reducing the public domain, such that contemporary Individual Talents are less and less permitted to interact legally with the Tradition (note to self: re-read Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent", paying attention to how it relates to current issues of intellectual "property").
I won't try to lay out all of Lessig's arguments here for you. This book gives a good framework for understanding the problems of the idea of intellectual "property", and offers grounded, moderate solutions.
But - in case you don't see why this issue is important - I'll close by relating something from Free Culture. There are drugs that ease the suffering and prolong the life of people with AIDS. These drugs aren't generally available to the people of Africa. Governments in Africa can't afford to purchase these drugs from the Western companies that manufacture them. The drug companies won't sell them at different prices in different places, because there's no current laws that would protect their inflated prices at home in the West. And Africa, who can't afford to buy them, is not allowed to know how to make them herself; that would destroy international patent law. But the drug companies wouldn't be losing potential profits if African nations manufactured generic versions of their drugs, because African nations can't afford to buy them anyway. All that would happen would be that fewer people would die and fewer people would be in pain. For the sake of sacred intellectual "property", millions suffer. And this kind of thing is bound up with the laws that tell you not to download music or photocopy books. The system doesn't work.