The recent controversy over Sony Pictures’ decision to pull the movie “The Interview” — followed up by the subsequent refusal of Paramount to allow showings of an alternative— have elicited howls of outrage who accuse these corporations of cowardice, bowing to terrorism and artistic censorship.

Nonsense. But why, you ask, is it nonsense? Because such claims suggest corporations are persons. Despite rulings of Supreme Courts in the USA, Canada, and England, corporations are not persons in any real sense but only as a useful legal fiction. As one wag has put it, corporations will only be considered persons when one of them gets the death penalty. (Though isn’t that what bankruptcy court is for?)

The idea of corporations as legal persons is nothing new — it goes back in legislation and jurisprudence to the 18th century. It arose because it was the only way to make corporate bodies effective instruments for investment and to keep these bodies accountable in some way.

If corporations weren’t persons, then they could not be sued for producing faulty products, they could not negotiate with unions (another artificial person) and they could not be fined for violating the law. Even the extension of First Amendment rights to Hobby Lobby—while morally repulsive—is not unique; free speech rights have been wielded by newspapers and other media corporations for a long time.

So the personhood of corporations is a requirement for certain purposes in a market economy. But it has its limits and it is not, in fact, sacrosanct.

Just as women were at one time denied ‘personhood’ in Canada and for many years, African Americans in the United States — even after the Emancipation Proclamation — were limited in their legal rights as persons, the idea of corporate personhood could be changed through more enlightened legislation or subsequent court rulings.

Will it happen? Probably not. Still, while corporations will continue to have the rights of a ‘natural person’ for legal reasons, this is unlikely to be extended to grant them the rights of citizenship, which are defined quite differently. A person may have certain constitutional rights whether they are the citizen of a country or not, but citizenship is a specific legal status that is contingent on certain qualifications and can be removed if the person, for example , is convicted of treason.

So where does that leave us with respect to Sony and Paramount? Well, one might say that these two corporations have reverted to their basic instincts. Corporations were formed to allow them to enter into and enforce contracts and to be sued or fined if in breach of the law. It is the fear of litigation — not the fear of a highly unlikely terrorist attack by person or persons unknown — that is preventing the release of “The Interview.”

So here is my suggestion. Though I generally disapprove of piracy, in this case an exception could be made. Good intentioned hackers (as opposed to evil hackers) should obtain copies of the film and spread it everywhere. Then real people can express their courage and their love of (bad) art by viewing it at home and sending e-mails to Kim Jong Un about how much they loved it.

And that’s ten minutes.


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