Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sopapillas Would be More Effective

As a citizen of the Internet - which is what you are, since you're reading this online - you've undoubtedly been inundated today with messages regarding SOPA-PIPA.

And if you're tired of it already, I'm sorry, because you're gonna get an earful from me about it as well.

Because SOPA-PIPA isn't simply an altruistic legislative scuffle, or fodder for jokes about fatty, starchy Mexican pastries (sopapillas, anybody?).  It could severely impact the way you use the Internet.

By way of full disclosure, there's also an international anti-piracy law in the works, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, but that doesn't fit in cleverly with acronyms which sound like wholly unhealthy - yet delicious! - sopapillas.

Anyway... as you may already know, the combined term SOPA-PIPA refers to two bills in Congress that propose pervasive restrictions on, and penalties for, certain types of Internet content.  Individually, the acronyms stand for the House of Representative's Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Senate's Protect IP Act (PIPA).  But however you slice them, they're both chock-full of restrictions, penalties, and outright censorship tactics that will virtually shut down innovation currently exploding all over the Internet.

Innovation which, by the way, is being indisputably led by entrepreneurs in the United States.  This is our baby.  We created it, thanks in no small measure to government scientists (take that, you anti-government Tea Partiers).  We have the most active users (so far, anyway).  And American companies already generate the most online profits of any other country.

Indeed, my sole source of revenue comes from what I write for the Internet.  So you'd think that it would be to my benefit to support SOPA-PIPA, since I have a vested interest in stopping online piracy, which is the ostensible objective of both of these bills.

And I do think online piracy should be fought.  I believe that anybody who creates intellectual property should automatically own it, or at least be able to control it.  The articles I write for Crosswalk are technically theirs for at least a year, but I agreed to that in the contract I signed with them.  I know where my content is supposed to be, and I trust Crosswalk to use it properly.  If I didn't want to abide by that arrangement, I was under no obligation to sign the contract.

But with Internet piracy, I lose control of my intellectual property... or, perhaps more accurately, the property I consider to have intellectual value.  Granted, with the stuff I write, few other people would ever want to claim it as their own.  And if anybody else can figure out how to make more money off of it than what Crosswalk pays me, then I'd be all ears!

Flaw Number One

Plenty of other Internet content, of course, is worth far more than mine.  Intellectual property like feature movies, TV shows, best-selling novels, photography, graphics, songs, and music videos have all been pirated online.  But is this really a new problem?  The illegal distribution of counterfeit products has been the bane of the intellectual capital world for generations.  And it's usually been up to the creators and distributors of that original content to devise ways of protecting their products at the point of distribution.

But the Internet is not actually their point of distribution.  And this is where the fallacy of SOPA-PIPA first appears.  The Internet is a distribution mechanism, but for any product, the last line of defense against product piracy is before it leaves the factory, not as it's being distributed.  In other words, the Internet is like the truck that delivers content to you, much like the truck that used to deliver movie reels to a theater in Des Moines, or modern DVD's to a Best Buy in Schenectady.

Does Hollywood sue all of the world's trucking firms because some of their products get pirated?  No, but they can sue an individual firm if they can prove that its employees were actively engaged in stealing freight and re-selling it on the black market.  Otherwise, if the Hollywood studios cannot prove the freight companies were culpable in hiring criminals to pirate intellectual (well, for Hollywood, we'd better just stick to "creative") property, then it's up to them to thwart the piracy by ensuring the product is protected both in-transit and even after delivery.

After all, stealing DVD's out of the back of a delivery truck likely isn't as common as a person buying a DVD retail, and then pirating the DVD's content for illicit re-sale in the black market.  That's hardly the freight company's fault, is it?

With SOPA-PIPA, in effect, Hollywood is saying it is.

Those of us against SOPA-PIPA believe that just as it's Hollywood's responsibility to protect its product before it's distributed in the bricks-and-mortar world, it's their responsibility to protect its product in the online world.

Does this mean that organizations which host content on the Internet - the web's "trucking companies," if you will - bear no responsibility for any pirated content their users may upload?  Perhaps currently in practice, but not in theory.  It's just that the "fix" for the lag between technology and law enforcement does not exist in SOPA-PIPA.

Flaw Number Two

Remember when people would sneak into movie theaters and videotape first-run movies from their seats?  Bootlegged videos would then show up a few days later.  But did Hollywood go chasing after the theater owners, forcing them to close because a bootlegger had been using a seat in one of their venues to ply his illicit trade?

Or take the pirating of music videos.  Has the recording industry gone after the electric utility companies which provided the electricity which enabled the music video pirates to play the videos in the first place?  Wouldn't that be completely stupid to blame the electric company, or the television manufacturer, for the crimes some people committed with the aid of ancillary equipment?

Penalizing the Internet would be just as incongruous.  The Internet is a public utility.  It has become almost as essential to modern American life as electricity, even if not everybody (like my Luddite mother) takes advantage of it.  The Internet is just the latest venue through which criminals have been able to develop their thievery of commodities that don't belong to them.  But the Internet isn't like a store that the Feds can raid and shut down.

Those of us opposed to SOPA-PIPA believe that since the Internet serves a vastly broader purpose than disseminating intellectual property, sweeping laws with draconian effects on all sorts of content would basically shut it down.  Just as you can't ration electricity to just households which promise not to pirate software or DVDs, you can't ration the Internet.  It is, or it isn't.  It's on, or it's off.  People either have rights to it, or they don't.

Does this mean that we just throw up our hands and say intellectual property rights don't exist on the Internet?  Of course not.  But neither does it mean that just because we haven't figured out a better way of protecting property rights, we need to turn the Internet into a police state.

Creators of any material that could end up on the Internet need to understand both the rewards and the risks of our online world.  Right now, for many creators of intellectual property, the risks appear to outweigh the rewards, and that has led to the unsustainable proposals inherent in SOPA-PIPA.

But just because we don't yet have a workable alternative to something as drastic as SOPA-PIPA, should we just run with what we've got?  Absolutely not, because just as intellectual property is valuable, so is intellectual freedom, and the ability to create and consume the very intellectual property we value.

Shutting down one of the world's greatest inventions because our laws can't keep up with parts of it does not make for logical public policy.

So... do you like honey with your sopapillas?

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