You may have noticed today that Wikipedia is blacked out to protest SOPA. I cannot accurately express in words how proud I am of the Wikipedia Foundation for taking part in this protest, but I’ll try: Very to the power of one billion. But I think it’s even more than that.
If you haven’t already heard of SOPA and you don’t know what it is, it stands for “Stop Online Piracy Act” and it is a law that certain politicians are trying to get passed in the US to allegedly prevent copyright infringement online.
That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? In fact, as a film-maker and multimedia content producer, this sounds like good news. And it would be if the law wasn’t what Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has called “a poorly thought out law” which has the potential to destroy the free and open Internet that we all know and love. And on top of that, it is unlikely that it would even achieve the objective it is aimed at achieving.
If you’re wondering why, Mashable has written a far better explanation of why SOPA is dangerous than I ever could. I recommend you read it.
Like Wikipedia, Facebook, Google, WordPress and countless other massive online properties, I am against SOPA. And yet I do believe that downloading movies and music for free is a crime that should be punishable somehow. If there was a law that would prevent that and only that, I would be in favour of it. But a law that pretty much gives the US government the power to block any site they deem to be infringing copyright either knowingly or unknowingly basically boils down to a law which allows one thing: censorship.
I am against SOPA because there are better, smarter, fairer ways to achieve what SOPA claims to want to achieve. The “Nuke The Web” approach that SOPA takes is destructive to the Internet and everything that the internet supports – free speech and innovation to name but a couple of things.
Yes, the problem of copyright infringement online does need to be solved for the sake of the future of the music and film industries, particularly the smaller record labels and independent film producers. But this is definitely NOT the way to do it.
Does The Entertainment Industry Have A Point?
Well, yes. I have long been a campaigner against deliberate digital copyright theft. Before I get misquoted let me qualify that. As a film-maker I do think that it is wrong for people to go to their favourite torrent site and be able to download movies that in some cases aren’t even in cinemas yet.
This type of behaviour has gone unpoliced and unchecked for too long. Ten years ago it was a problem. But at that time it was mainly something that the geek elite did and students who were savvy enough with the fast evolving technological world to know about things like this. But now it’s ten years later and those students are now the young adults in their late twenties and early thirties who are still doing it. And of course the students of today are doing it too. So the number of people illegally downloading music and movies is growing.
The thought process that makes people think of downloading a movie before they think of buying a cinema ticket has got to go. But how exactly to get rid of it is still a highly controversial issue.
Should Google be forced to block sites that are clearly designed for this purpose? In a way, I think they should. From personal experience running one of the UK’s magic shops which deals primarily in a particular type of intellectual property, I can’t tell you how frustrating it is when Google considers a bit torrent search engine’s illegal download page for a DVD Rip of one of my products more relevant to the search term than many of ten or fifteen online stores legitimately selling the product.
This is page one of Google for the term “13 Steps To Mentalism”, a land mark publication in magic. It’s a 6 DVD box set which teaches how to create the illusion of mind reading. But that’s beside the point. The point is that thepiratebay.org’s download page for this search term is ranked third. How are legitimate businesses every going to sell any product when Google is presenting searchers with results like this?
What We Need Instead Of SOPA
SOPA is only the latest act to try and tackle the problems that the entertainment industry is facing as a result of the ease with which intellectual property can now be shared and mass distributed between millions of people. A couple of years ago there was the Net Neutrality Act which proposed to treat different types of data differently in order to prevent sites from loading which hosted controversial or illegal content. But, it was seen as the first step on a ladder that eventually would lead to the end of the free and open Internet. And rightly so.
It’s only a question of time before politicians eventually reach a status quo with the online world and an act which addresses the issues and comfortably combats those issues and only those issues needs to be reached.
First, I think the act that is eventually passed, needs to be written by a person or group of people who understand the Internet. SOPA, if you care to read it, has clearly not been written by anybody who is familiar with the online world or digital culture. This is perhaps most prominently evidenced by it’s proposal to make site owners liable for anything that is hosted on their sites, even in the world of Web 2.0 where up to 90% of some websites’ content is contributed by its’ user base.
Second, I think we need a new definition of copyright infringement that is suitable for the online world.
Pictures and videos are shared every day as a form of self expression, and it’s high time the entertainment industry came to realize that. Music is a part of our culture. Current copyright laws make it ridiculously easy to find yourself in breach of them and I think this needs to be thought out better.
While, yes, I would say that websites designed specifically for the deliberate mass distribution of copyrighted material like The Pirate Bay should face some sort of legal action, other websites, like personal blogs that happen to feature a clip recorded from TV the previous night cannot be charged with copyright violation. It is madness.
If these laws are passed, it could mean the end of Facebook, Youtube & Wikipedia to name just a few – all the websites that we know and love. And that’s where the lasting damage of this bill we be – preventing us from posting content on YouTube and Facebook. Not preventing online piracy. We’ll virtually have to hire a lawyer before we can send a Tweet, which will essentially devolve the internet from being the powerful knowledge sharing tool that it is today into a consumption-only entity, much like a library.
The Last Word
The Internet is a beautiful thing. And the Internet as we know it is under threat. While I do think it is important that we find some way of preventing deliberate intellectual property theft and mass distribution of copyrighted material such as sites like ThePirateBay.org, under no circumstances should this affect the fundamental nature of the Internet.