The actors in the soap opera that is SOPA and PIPA are getting a bit full of themselves. If you haven't been following this saga, these two bills, ham-handed attempts to stop online content piracy, prompted Google, Wikipedia, and a bunch of other sites to black out their logos or temporarily shut down in protest. SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act, the House version) and PIPA (Protect IP Act, the Senate version) are said to threaten free speech, the future of innovation, the technical infrastructure of the Internet, and the economic foundation of the global economy. Wrote one wag: "Big content is quite literally trying to foist its own version of the Great Firewall of China on to the American public." Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!
For another example of the overwrought reactions, consider the public statement from blog site Boing Boing, which shut itself down on Jan. 18 to protest the two Congressional bills: "We could not ever link to another website unless we were sure that no links to anything that infringes copyright appeared on that site. So in order to link to a URL on LiveJournal or WordPress or Twitter or Blogspot, we'd have to first confirm that no one had ever made an infringing link, anywhere on that site. Making one link would require checking millions (even tens of millions) of pages, just to be sure that we weren't in some way impinging on the ability of five Hollywood studios, four multinational record labels, and six global publishers to maximize their profits."
[ For more background on the SOPA anti-piracy legislation, see SOPA: 10 Key Facts. ]
I'm not here to defend SOPA or PIPA. If, as their critics maintain, the bills effectively give ISPs, search engines, and payment services carte blanche to cut off foreign websites that U.S. movie, music, and other content creators merely claim are profiting from their stolen goods, then the legislation is an abomination.
But due process still exists in this country, so I have trouble believing that the courts will sit on their hands while a fundamental constitutional principle is violated. "Fair use" of copyrighted and trademarked material also still exists, so I have trouble believing that YouTube execs who let a 14-year-old post a video of herself singing "Sexy And I Know It" will get taken away in shackles. Still, if the SOPA and PIPA language is so broad as to invite such flagrant abuses, then the bills' authors need to go back to square one.
Question is, are they up to the task? An argument making the rounds among the digerati is that SOPA and PIPA are 20th century answers to a 21st century challenge, that the movie, music, and media industry lobbyists and their Congressional puppets just don't understand the dynamics of the Internet. If that's so (and no doubt it is), then it's up to the Internet industry stalwarts opposing SOPA/PIPA to rally support for a meaningful, 21st century alternative to stopping online content piracy. Most of them pay lip service to the notion that such piracy is a serious problem. It's time for them to stop grandstanding--stop stomping their feet and holding their breath--and start showing the 20th century studios and record labels and media companies and their clueless lobbyists and Congressional supporters a much more effective way to address this issue.
To its credit Google, whose YouTube is a dumping ground for pirated material, is behind an alternative bill--The Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade, or OPEN, Act--and is seeking industry comment and collaboration. That collaboration must include movie, music, and media companies.
This isn't a case of inviting Big Government/Big Brother to step in where it has no business. It's government’s job to stop crimes and prosecute criminals. If you steal the goods that studios, artists, musicians, novelists, developers, and others produce (often at considerable expense) with the intent of profiting from that theft, then you must be held accountable. Another notion making the rounds is that Hollywood studios and music labels are to blame for the theft of their copyrighted material because their business models aren’t palatable to many consumers. That's right: Blame the victim. So if some rogue site got its hands on Google’s intellectual property and started posting it illegally, claiming Google wasn’t producing and distributing products based on that IP fast enough or at a good enough price point for most consumers’ tastes, would Google come to that site’s defense in the name of a "free Internet?"
I’m not saying there’s not a much better way to crack down on site operators who steal and distribute copyrighted and trademarked content, as long as we understand that the Internet is subject to the laws of the land like any distribution vehicle. If you don’t want to pay 15 bucks to go see the latest Tom Cruise action movie, get a Netflix account and download older movies for a fraction of the price. Or go watch Die Hard reruns on TV or Smosh on YouTube. I may not like the fact that a new Porsche Spyder costs about $70K and that Porsche makes the fattest profit margins in the car business, but that doesn’t give me the right to break into a showroom at night, drive one home, and sell it from my driveway.
The Internet industry backlash against SOPA and PIPA has even Congressional supporters rethinking their position. The bills look to be all but dead. So Google and friends, the ball's now in your court. Where do you propose we go from here?