Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SOPA and PIPA Aren't The Answer

I've been blogging for more than a decade, including more than a few years here at A Blog For All. Thousands of posts and musings. Photographs galore. That's all intellectual property that I've produced over the years. Creators of media should have some protections and enforcement to make sure that their works of art are protected. It's the hard work of these media creators that should be rewarded monetarily but there's a balancing act to be had.

To that end, the RIAA, Disney, and others that have fought to extend copyright protections. However, those efforts have made a mockery of the copyright protection system by further extending the limitations periods beyond the already previously extended limitations periods. Disney forced an extension of protections so that they could protect Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck for a little while longer, but that issue will come up once again as they near the new expiration date in a few years time.

Copyright doesn't mean gaining profits in perpetuity. The public benefits from having works of art revert to the public domain after time. Having works revert to the public domain forces creators to, well, create new products. After all, Disney got to profit from public domain use of various fairy tales, and so too can other entities as the Disney copyrights expire.

As far as protecting music works, some artists have gone direct to public sales or offering free downloads of some works to entice others to buy other products. In some ways, itunes and downloads allow people to buy the stuff they like, rather than being forced to buy an entire CD from which only one song is worth listening to. There's money to be made in the downloads too, and how the artists can monetize their works is an interesting development since its the recording industry that finds itself exposed as a middleman that can be completely avoided. This is really at the heart of matters. It's all about money and who can exploit the copyrightable and protected materials.

After all, someone could make a high quality recording in their basement and push it to the Net without any overhead (as in the cd/vinyl pressings), advertising, etc. That's more worrisome to the recording industry than anything else, since if established artists move away from the recording industry as it is now, the cash cow dies with it. Instead of adjusting to the changed circumstances of the recording industry, they're focusing on copyright violation as a savior to the industry, even though that's not nearly the problem that it's made out to be.

Entire industries are heavily reliant on intellectual property online, including the entertainment industry and software industry. Today, many sites across the globe, including Wikipedia and, have gone dark to protest the SOPA and PIPA bills working their way through Congress. Those pieces of legislation would put serious restrictions on ISPs and content providers, all in the attempt to thwart piracy occurring on websites run outside the US. The problem is that the legislation has the potential to open up liability for content providers and ISPs in the US if they link to these sites.
Both are meant to attack the problem of foreign Web sites that sell pirated or counterfeit goods. They would impose restrictions forcing U.S. companies to stop selling online ads to suspected pirates, processing payments for illegal online sales and refusing to list Web sites suspected of piracy in search-engine results.

The idea is to cut off the channels that deliver American customers, and their money, to potential pirates. But tech companies see the laws as a dangerous overreach, objecting because, they say, the laws would add burdensome costs and new rules that would destroy the freewheeling soul of the Internet.

“The voice of the Internet community has been heard,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who sided with the tech companies, said in a statement. Issa said he had already been told of a victory: GOP leaders told him that the House would not vote on a version of the bill that those companies oppose. “Much more education for Members of Congress about the workings of the Internet is essential.”
The NY Times provides the following example:
Under the proposed legislation, if a copyright holder like Warner Brothers discovers that a foreign site is focused on offering illegal copies of songs or movies, it could seek a court order that would require search engines like Google to remove links to the site and require advertising companies to cut off payments to it.

Internet companies fear that because the definitions of terms like “search engine” are so broad in the legislation, Web sites big and small could be responsible for monitoring all material on their pages for potential violations — an expensive and complex challenge.

They say they support current law, which requires Web sites with copyright-infringing content to take it down if copyright holders ask them to, leaving the rest of the site intact. Google, which owns YouTube and other sites, received five million requests to remove content or links last year, and it says it acts in less than six hours if it determines that the request is legitimate.

The major players supporting the legislation, including the United States Chamber of Commerce and the Motion Picture Association of America, say those measures are not enough to protect intellectual property. They emphasize that their primary targets are foreign Web sites that sell counterfeit goods and let people stream and download music and video at no charge — sites that are now largely out of reach of United States law enforcement. And they are fighting against what they characterize as gimmicks and distortions by Internet companies opposed to the bills.
Considering that the emphasis is supposedly on piracy occurring overseas, this legislation will have little lasting effect on reducing piracy; even the proponents note the limited ability to go after foreign sites (that would take additional treaties and enhanced copyright protection in these foreign jurisdictions - reciprocal agreements). It would, however, have a significant and detrimental effect on innovation and content management of Internet services in the United States.

As someone who creates and publishes content for the Web, there is certainly room to improve enforcement of existing protections and to better thwart piracy. However, SOPA or PIPA are not the solutions to the problem.

Two key senators drop support for the SOPA/PIPA legislation and instead are urging more research on the matter.
Freshman Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a rising Republican star, was first out of the starting gate Wednesday morning with his announcement that he would no longer back anti-Internet piracy legislation he had co-sponsored. Senator John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who heads the campaign operation for his party, quickly followed suit and urged Congress take more time to study the measure that had been set for a test vote next week.

Mr. Cornyn, just before 9 a.m, posted on his Facebook page that it was “better to get this done right rather than fast and wrong. Stealing content is theft, plain and simple, but concerns about unintended damage to the internet and innovation in the tech sector require a more thoughtful balance, which will take more time.”

Their decisions came after swathes of the Internet were shut down Wednesday to protest two separate bills, the Stop On-line Piracy Act in the House, written by Representative Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, and the Protect Intellectual Property Act, drafted by Senator Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Members of Congress, many of whom are grappling with the issues posed by the explosion in new media and social web sites, appeared caught off guard by the backlash to what had been a relatively obscure piece of legislation to many of them. The Internet sensibility of the Senate was represented a few years ago in remarks by the late Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, who called the Internet “not a big truck” but “series of tubes” - an observation enshrined in the Net Hall of Shame.

The legislation, which is being pushed by the likes of the RIAA and Chamber of Commerce, wouldn't be able to really address the crux of the problem - that piracy is a matter that is outside the US jurisdiction. It happens overseas, and it is a ham-fisted measure that would adversely affect US companies and content providers here without actually reducing piracy overseas. Even the proponents of the legislation admit that the bills aren't sufficient to go after the piracy overseas and look to reduce their linkages domestically.

Then again, there are those who argue that scapegoating countries like China ignores that piracy is sometimes overblown and often used as a campaign issue. For instance, someone who illegally downloaded a song didn't cost the recording industry a $15 sale but possibly a $.99 cent iTunes download. Then again, if that person liked the song that they illegally downloaded, they might potentially buy the entire album or compilation of songs - such that the illegally downloaded song became advertising for the artist's larger collection of works. That's a somewhat compelling argument, and it underlines the difficulty in quantifying the costs to the industry.

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