A 21st Century SOPA Opera

It can’t have escaped many people’s attention this week that some of the biggest online businesses took a stand against two pieces of legislation being proposed in the US. The Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act are an attempt by various parties to control what they call the ”unchallenged spread of piracy on the web”. A closer look at the proposals include barring advertising networks and payment facilities from conducting business with (allegedly) infringing websites, barring search engines from linking to the sites in their search results and requiring ISP’s to block access. The bill would also criminalise streaming of content, with a maximum 5 year prison sentence. In a nut shell the legislation aims to cut links to any infringing sites so that they can no longer function.

I’ll say right now, it’s fairly clear that IP theft is a bad thing. In an ideal world piracy shouldn’t exist. An artist should be fairly compensated for the work they do. Anyway, back to the real world…

The internet touches daily life almost everywhere now and is based upon 2 main truths: everyone is equal and information is immediate. It gives us what we want when we want it, and this filters into our general psyche too. From that perspective you can why, in the face of a lack of modern alternatives being provided by the content companies, that people choose to pirate. Why bother going to a shop anymore, wait days for a disc to arrive, or bemoan the fact your favourite TV show is shown in America weeks before you get the chance to see it on your own terrestrial TV? When you have an option in a matter of hours to download something of equal quality compared with the legal option, many will go with the quicker and easier option.

Every since Napster launched in 1999, the content industry has failed to adapt a) to the times and b) to changing demand. Over the last decade their tactic of suing everyone into oblivion has worked relatively well, in one case a defendant was ordered to pay just shy of $2M for sharing 24 songs. That isolated case shows just how far behind they are as such a punishment can never be justified if the defendant could never realistically pay those damages.

Successful digital content services like iTunes and NetFlix have been started by third party companies outside the industry. From their perspective they’ve obviously seen that market demand has changed in the last decade and their success to date proves there is a market for buying legal content. These acts have only been written in the interest of the content companies, rather than the individuals they are meant to be entertaining. This would be especially bad for community and social networking sites like Facebook as they would be responsible for every single users’ actions. The bill would allow them to claim against and remove that site’s rights that they felt were infringing, without involvement and legal process from the courts. Now if you agree with that, you need your head retuning. The legislation is also confusingly worded, referring to rogue websites, but failing to define categories like “foreign” and “domestic”.

There is a good article in the New York Times by David Carr quoting Yancey Strickler, which pretty much sums things up… “it’s the people who grew up on the web versus people who still don’t use it.” How apt.

The public pressure this week has certainly made a difference, although I am sure that the impact would have been far greater had Facebook also decided to close it’s doors for a day. However the anti-SOPA effort has managed to persuade 18 high profile supporters to abandon ship. So whilst the battle may have been won this week, the war most certainly will continue.

Both sides can agree that US copyright law needs an overhaul. But poorly written, draconian legislation is not the way forward. The US needs legislation that is forward thinking and protects the open nature of the internet – an internet that has already been a brilliantly creative place in the last twenty years.

(Many thanks to Dave Robertson for his input to this)


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