You would think that headline was in The Onion, but sadly it’s real:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – State lawmakers in country music’s capital have passed a groundbreaking measure that would make it a crime to use a friend’s login — even with permission — to listen to songs or watch movies from services such as Netflix or Rhapsody.

The legislation was aimed at hackers and thieves who sell passwords in bulk, but its sponsors acknowledge it could be employed against people who use a friend’s or relative’s subscription.

As recently revisited briefly by CrimLaw, there’s an old question about the law in general:

Recently, I asked a number of fellow layers a simple question: is the law a reflection of morality or merely a way to organize society? Every single one, from those who are pragmatic, non-philosophical types to those whom I perceive to be deeper thinking, more theologically oriented answered that the law is there to organize society.

It’s the same issue as the malum in se / malum prohibitum debate. Some acts are deemed illegal because the act is evil in itself (literally “malum in se”) while others are illegal because we have decided to make the act a forbidden evil (literally “malum prohibitum”) regardless of its moral implications.

There’s no one description for “the law,” there are only descriptions for particular laws. Some laws reflect morality; murder is illegal because it’s an intentional, destructive invasion of the rights of others. Other laws reflect society’s preferred organization (as expressed through its government); you can’t feed a parking meter because we’ve decided to force some degree of sharing among parking spaces, not because parking at one spot for a long time is evil.

But now I’ve realized that we need a third category after malum in se and malum prohibitum. Sometimes, if I might try some Latin, a law is neither passed because a given act is evil or because we need to organize society that way, but rather because making a given act evil allows certain companies to freeload off government law enforcement resources. Let’s call it malum servire euentum, or “evil to serve a special interest.”

Indeed, it seems “stupid laws designed to turn law enforcement into debt collectors for favored businesses” is something of a specialty in Tennessee:

The bill expands an existing law used to prosecute people who steal cable television or leave restaurants without paying for their meals. It adds "entertainment subscription service" to the list of services protected by the law.

Listening to music on someone else’s online streaming account is no more a criminal theft than negligently leaving a floor slippery is a criminal battery. Is it an act of vandalism to get into a fender bender? Attempted poisoning if the restaurant doesn’t fully cook my hamburger?

We have tort and contract laws to deal with these situations, and that’s the only recourse when a corporation is the one causing the damage. If Netflix or Rhapsody loses my personal information, or has a sustained service outage, or improperly bills my credit card, I can’t call up the state troopers to arrest them for identity theft or fraud. (I suppose I could, but they would laugh at me and potentially arrest me for filing a false claim.)

Why should consumer sins be criminalized while corporate sins remain mere civil claims? It’s like what Thoreau deemed the “asymmetry of responsibility:”

I’m probably just dwelling on the trivialities of my comfortable suburban professional existence, but my basic grievance against big companies is that when they screw up they take 6-8 weeks to fix it, usually after multiple phone calls and whatnot, but if I screw up a penalty is immediately levied.  This happens on every scale, from billing snafus with $7 fees, to cases of people being foreclosed on even though they had never missed a payment and spent money on lawyers to prove this, to “Oops, we broke the global economy, could you send $1 trillion to our Nigerian accounts?”

So, I say that we should be able to put large companies on hold when they want something, send them through phone trees, and ask them to re-submit paperwork that we may or may not lose track of.

Instead, big companies get to use our police forces as their free debt collectors while we have to shovel money and time at lawyers and court processes if we want relief.

And here’s the kicker: even if you catch Netflix or Rhapsody or some other “entertainment service” intentionally ripping you off, there’s likely nothing you can do about it. The value of your claim is likely well below the cost of bringing a lawsuit, and those companies will happy follow the Supreme Court’s guidance and tuck into your user agreement language prohibiting class actions.