When I was a kid, a felony was a really bad crime. It was something like murder, or rape, or a hit-and-run. Those who committed felonies served time in the Big House, as well they should– they had done something terrible. Looking in Webster’s Dictionary, you can find that a felony is “a grave crime”… something dreadful, something far worse than a misdemeanor, and something worth a stiff punishment.

But these days, it seems like a lot of (relatively) harmless crimes are being reclassified as felonies. Take the Senate bill just introduced by Feinstein (D-CA) and Cornyn (R-TX). It makes it a felony– excuse me, a FEDERAL felony– to sneak a camcorder into a theater and tape the movie. The sentence? Up to five years in the slammer, along with some harsh financial penalties.

Several years ago it became a felony to gain unauthorized access to a computer system– “hacking”, as they call it– and several people (even those who were well-intentioned and trying to find and report security flaws) have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

There are undoubtably more examples. I’m sure the Patriot Act is littered with them, and I suspect if I managed to get through airport security with my pocketknife I would be committing a felony– even if it stayed in my pocket the entire time.

Now, I’m not saying that filming a movie in the theater is okay (although it’s currently completely legal in 46 states), nor am I saying breaking into computer systems should be condoned (although there are legitimate activities involving such). But in my mind these are in no way felonies– they are misdemeanors, and they should be enforced accordingly.

It’s staggering to consider that a rapist might receive less jail time than someone who copied “Matrix Revolutions” to show their friends before the DVD came out.

As an aside, it’s becoming more obvious that corporate interests are defining our legal landscape. The two senators who introduced this latest felony bill are associated with– you guessed it– the MPAA and the RIAA. Those trade groups are very interested in protecting their profi– er, copyrights– and in order to do it they’re lobbying for the felony-fication of laws regarding copyright infringement.

One wonders how much further this process will be allowed to go. How many more petty crimes will become felonies? Will there be a time when any violation of the law, if it impedes on some corporation’s interests, will carry with it a prison term and enough fines to effectively bankrupt you for life? And more importantly, are these new stiff penalties effective? Will they make a difference in society, or will they simply placate the corporations and place undue fear on otherwise law-abiding citizens who now have to worry whether they’re inadvertently doing something that’ll land them in the Big House?