SOPA and ShortbreadStories: Two different futures for the internet
/by Bill Toth/
My mother still uses AOL and doesn’t know how to tell which button is the “play” button. My grandfather needs me to write “turn on computer” at the start of any set of instructions I give him for things as simple as printing his bridge scoring template, checking his email (also AOL), or turning off the computer (that last one is mostly a joke). I know what a “proxy server” is. I’ve built a website from scratch. I’ve spent hours searching for a way of circumventing Apple’s DRM so I could watch my iTunes-purchased copy of Inception on my Android phone in a dream I had when I fell asleep while researching how to watch Inception on my Android phone in a dream I had when… you get the joke.
Which of these people would you prefer was in charge of regulating activity on the internet? You can even pick two. Personally, I’d pick myself twice (after I turn 25, of course). Unfortunately, the American people have elected individuals much more like my mother and grandfather to craft the legislation that shapes the future of technology. Many members of Congress don’t get the internet, or the importance of the free access to information or esoteric markets that it brings with it. Worse, none of them have any reason to try to “get” the internet, as long as continuing not to get it works as a fundraising strategy. Sadly, Hollywood’s money buys votes in Congress. It also, until yesterday, appears to have bought a lack of media coverage.
Many of you may have noticed yesterday (18 January 2012) that reddit.com was blacked out from 7am-7pm EST, that the American version of Wikipedia was taken down for the day , and that today’s Google “doodle” was censored. This was all in response to two pieces of legislation currently being debated in the U.S. Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act (“SOPA”) in the House of Representatives and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (“PIPA”) in the Senate. These bills, strangely the least partisan of the controversial bills considered by this Congress, seek to stamp out the piracy of copyrighted material through a series of censorship and criminal prosecution measures. These bills have sparked uproar on the internet leading to campaigns against SOPA/PIPA’s supporters ranging from the exodus of tens of thousands of GoDaddy.com’s customers to raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for Rob Zerban, who is contending for SOPA sponsor Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) congressional seat.
But what does this bill do? Perhaps the easiest component of the bill to understand is that it changes copyright infringement from a civil offence that can currently only be enforced against by the copyright-holder the uploader or distributor of copyrighted materials, into a criminal offence, enforceable by the government against both uploaders AND downloaders.
But why should the law-abiding readers of ShortbreadStories care? Perhaps the most controversial provision of these laws is that they would hold websites responsible for infringing content posted by their users by enabling rights-holders to order search engines like Google or Yahoo to remove links to the host sites and to order Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast or Verizon (or whatever you silly chaps have “across the pond”) to refuse to route users to the site through its domain name (“ShortbreadStories.com”). Critics of SOPA/PIPA are concerned that this punishes legitimate businesses (particularly start-ups without significant resources to sort through new content for copyrighted material) and sets a dangerous precedent of government censorship of the internet. Of particular concern is the bill’s extension of this power to foreign-based sites, over whom U.S. law shouldn’t apply, and who may not have jurisdiction (and will likely not have the resources) to contest such censorship in U.S. courts.
Because ShortbreadStories is a user-generated-content based site, SOPA and PIPA affect it directly. I don’t know much about the site or its policies, but I can assume that it is unlikely that its administrators would be unlikely to catch a user who uploaded copyrighted materials to the site very quickly. Even worse, with the lack of clarity in the U.S. Copyright Fair Use doctrine, and the breadth of the language in SOPA/PIPA, short stories that legitimately draw on prior cultural works could trigger these court orders, and those may go unchallenged.
That’s why most people oppose SOPA/PIPA. While I agree with all of the above criticisms of the bills, I’ve got a different take, and I haven’t heard many other people take this opinion, so I’m happy I have been granted an audience with all of you. The Internet has rendered the current system of entertainment content obsolete, and it’s time for a paradigm shift. It is no longer necessary for cable providers or even cable networks to provide channels of content delivery to consumers. Content should be delivered directly from the content-producer direct to the consumer. Consumers would get what they want when they want it and producers would have easy access to new audiences without needing to cut through walls of red tape. The fact that Arrested Development’s new season will be delivered exclusively via Netflix, or that Louis C.K. was able to make over $1 million on his self-funded comedy special, which he sold digital copies of for $5, DRM-free (read: easily pirateable) are early signs of this paradigm shift.
Piracy is bad. It’s immoral, it fosters disrespect for the law, it disincentives creativity* (at least where intellectual property policy is properly made, which it isn’t, but I’ll come back to write about that the next time Steamboat Willy’s copyright term nears its end). But piracy can have a positive consequence. Years ago, it inspired the creation of sites like Hulu and Netflix (Netflix is the US equivalent to LoveFilm) which were even earlier signs of the paradigm shift I’m discussing. Many fortunes have been made from today’s outdated system, and nobody with wants to paradigm-shift themselves out of a job. Hollywood’s support for SOPA/PIPA is, to me, simply a reflection of its resistance to the emergence of a content delivery structure that is better for consumers and producers alike.
In short, online piracy should be stopped. But not like this. Write your congresspeople, sign petitions, join this exciting grassroots movement.
*Note: I did not say that piracy is theft. Piracy is not theft. Piracy is piracy. Theft is theft.
Bill Toth is a first year student at Columbia Law School in New York, and a graduate of Yale College with a Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies. He is interested in intellectual property, media, and telecommunications law. He is a brother of Alpha Epsilon Pi Fraternity, a huge fan of Seinfeld, and co-writer of a political satire talk show for BridgesTV (a local television station) called “The Minority Retort.”
If you’d like to get involved you can sign Google’s petition.