Photo courtesy of Andrew Dallos
Over the past few weeks / months I have been closely following all of the happenings in the realm of internet censorship and copyright protection (SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, etc). I am heavily emotionally invested in the topic, and as such I didn’t want to write this piece until I felt I had considered both sides of the story thoroughly. Now, after speaking with my representatives’ respective staffers a handful of times, posting and re-tweeting anti-SOPA and anti-PIPA opinion pieces and factual breakdowns ad nauseam, and reading as much as I could about the issues, I feel that I am well equipped to weigh in on the issue. Those of you that have read some other posts I have written may recall that I wrote about how SOPA is more dangerous than you may think. While that could certainly be considered “weighing in on the topic,” I aim to supply you with a much more objective and pragmatic analysis this time around.
The foundation of copyright is valid
A lot of the arguments that I have heard against SOPA and PIPA have taken issue directly with the concept of copyright. I have heard many individuals claim that the idea behind enforcibly owning ideas and art is a flawed concept, as defining boundaries for an idea or a creative work is near impossible. In arguing this, issues such as the patent war between Apple and Samsung are cited as proof that owning a concept serves solely to bully others in courts.
While I think that the people that argue this point certainly have some solid ground to stand on, I would argue that the issue we are currently facing is not due to the concept of copyright itself but instead the inability of legislation to keep up with technology. Copyright was initially created to protect the people that came up with an idea that could otherwise be stolen and replicated by competitors. This concept is, in and of itself, a good idea. I fully believe in open-sourcing applications and sharing brilliant ideas with others, but if I had no way to protect inventions I had made that were putting money in my pocket, then I would have no drive to be an inventor.
Now, this is not to say that copyright in its current form is a good thing. On the contrary, copyright has gotten so incredibly out of control that it is posing a detrimental threat towards the freedoms so many of us hold dear. Where copyright was created to protect the artist / inventor and her assets for a reasonable period of time following conception of the copyrighted idea, it is now being leveraged as a mechanism to cripple market competition and increase barriers to market entry. This utilization is nearly the exact opposite of what copyright was initially intended for; to protect business owners and grow the economy. It is because of this re-defining of what copyright refers to that the idea of copyright is so demonized. For the benefit of all those not directly associated with the titans of copyrighted content, legislation needs to be scaled back to better embody the ideals from which copyright was born.
Piracy DOES need to be quelled
Hopefully the preceding header may have caught a few of you off-guard, as I’m sure a number of people that know me would expect me to say otherwise. Let me be clear though, there is a clear difference between piracy and file sharing. The recent debacle with MegaUpload being taken offline by the FBI has sparked a large amount of controversy, including discussing the legality of the take down. Many internet gathering spots such as Reddit have cried foul, screaming about the over-reach that arresting a non-US citizen in a foreign country demonstrates.
MegaUpload being taken down was a good thing, and here’s why:
- MegaUpload was a site whose primary revenue stream relied heavily on directly stealing and redistributing creative works produced by other legitimate entities. Users would be rewarded for uploading content that resulted in large amounts of downloads, a reward system that ended up heavily rewarding users that would upload copyrighted and protected content. In doing so MegaUpload was a poster child for what the RIAA and MPAA would like you to believe a pirate is.
- MegaUpload was doing this in plain sight and on American soil. They had a server farm located within the physical boundaries of the US, and they were additionally registered with an ICANN-controlled TLD (.com). While other “rogue” websites that have participated in shady business dealings are predominantly located in places that are outside of US jurisdiction to avoid this problem, MegaUpload seemed to think they were above the law and out of reach.
- MegaUpload was taken down with due process. The FBI stepped through all the necessary existing legislative hoops that they needed to in dealing with MegaUpload. They acquired warrants, launched a full-fledged investigation, and acquired enough evidence to step in and take the site down.
- The FBI taking MegaUpload down shows that the legislative and investigative tools the FBI has in their arsenal are more than sufficient to take care of pirates (especially considering the voracity the site was taken down with). They have effectively declawed, dismantled, and defunded the entire corporation, and they have done so entirely within the boundaries of the law. In effect they have proven that SOPA and PIPA are unnecessary for combating piracy.
MegaUpload was a near-perfect example of what the initial idea of copyright served to protect against. They were true pirates in the sense of the name, and they needed to be stopped. This is the distinction that, in a perfect world, the MPAA and RIAA should realize constitutes a pirate rather than a file sharer. To better explain this, consider the following. If I am an otherwise law-abiding citizen that downloads a movie or album every once in a while from a network of peers who have the respective file, then I should not be considered a pirate in the traditional sense (more on this in the following section). If I am an individual or company that directly financially benefits from giving copies of software/video/audio/etc away that I do not own, then I am a pirate. The first of these two should be allowed to prosper, while the second should be taken down accordingly.
File sharing arose from industries that didn’t meet their customers’ demands
File sharing arose due to two issues that the recording, movie, and software industries failed to address; availability and pricing. While Valve CEO Gabe Newell may not agree with me on the idea that pricing was a motivator in the file sharing realm, he is quoted to have said
We think there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem [...] If a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24 x 7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable.
This could not be more true. This is the twenty first century. I am typing this on a computer that is constantly connected to the internet. I have a phone sitting on my desk that has more computing power under the hood than space shuttles do. Technology is a fantastic thing, and copyright-based industries will fight tooth and nail to convince you otherwise (keeping in mind that these are the same groups that claimed the player piano, MP3 player, and VCR were all death sentences for their respective industries).
For those of you that have Netflix, when was the last time you downloaded a movie illegally? If you did download a movie illegally, was the movie available on Netflix to stream? The same argument holds true for Spotify and music. The fact of the matter is, regardless of what the MPAA and RIAA would have you believe, that the majority of file sharers are not attracted to the idea of stiffing the rights holders. If there was a movie that I wanted to see that wasn’t available by Netflix instant streaming, I would have two main choices; make sure I look semi-presentable and drive to the store to pay more money than the movie is worth for it and then drive home and watch it, or stay in the comfortable confines of my residency and download the movie in a shorter amount of time than driving would take. This isn’t a tough decision to make, but if I had the opportunity to obtain a copy of the movie free of DRM through a legal avenue at a reasonable price, I wouldn’t even have to make a decision.
The second half of this statement, though, is as important as the first; pricing. We are living in a period where the global economy isn’t doing well. Unemployment is a hot topic in every developed country, and unemployment rates are scarily high in a lot of places. Why, then, do entertainment-based industries think that they can sell their entertainment-based goods at prices that may be many times the cost of a single meal (DVDs and CDs)? When money is tight, entertainment is often one of the first areas where an individual can cut their budget. In addition to the entertainment industries, software companies like Adobe and Microsoft charge exorbitant prices for their products. Charging $600+ for the Creative Suite software package or $300 for Windows 7 Professional may be viable pricing models if your sole customers are corporations that have deep pockets, but it is uninformed to think that these prices are reflective of the free market’s price point.
While the recording titans coalescing behind the RIAA and the motion picture titans coalescing behind the MPAA may not be considered monopolies in the legal definition of the word, these conglomerations serve to steer their respective industries at collective will and abolish free market principles, effectively pricing goods at points that have little to do with actual demand. When there is a readily accessible, high speed method of getting copies of a good that you produce, you must take that in to account when pricing your good. It would seem the RIAA and MPAA understand this, as their approach is not to adjust their prices, but to cut off any alternative methods for content distribution.
What does this all mean then?
I wish I could tell you. I’ve been racking my brain to try and connect the dots between all of these issues to offer a solution that addresses all of them, but thus far I have failed. In my thinking, though, I have come to the following conclusions:
- PIPA and SOPA are clear demonstrations of what happens when people are so comfortable in their own lives that they have become complacent and uninformed. Until Wikipedia went dark and Google weighed in on the issue the vast majority of Americans had no idea what SOPA and PIPA were despite how drastically their lives may be affected by the bills’ passings.
- How quickly the bills were written and rushed through their legislative bodies highlights the power that corporate money holds in politics. This power needs to be replaced with a mechanism which better serves the needs of individual Americans over American corporations.
- Technology grows quickly and legislators have failed to keep up. The immediate flip-flopping of supporters for the SOPA and PIPA bills in response to the black out protest day not only shows how out of touch representatives have gotten with the people they serve, but it shows too that these individuals had no idea what these bills actually involved. This video proves that these people believe that to understand how the internet works, you have to be a nerd.
- Copyright law needs to be rewritten to reflect the ideals upon which it was initially founded. Instead of allowing companies to own all rights for a character in a movie for nearly a century, copyright should directly address intellectual property thieves and explicitly state what constitutes fair use.
- The internet, one of the most important inventions man has ever created, is at risk of being forever changed at the cost of every internet user in the world and at the benefit of a select, obsolete few. We have only just begun to see the possibilities of the internet, and the open internet will play a quintessential role in the survival of humanity. If these select, obsolete few get their way, humanity as a whole will feel the blow. Heck, Chinese sentiments believe that they’re ahead of the curve with their great firewall, stating that the US is just now struggling to catch up to their prophetic censorship.
- We the people must actively fight for our rights. Commonly attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the saying “The cost of freedom is eternal vigilance” could not ring truer than it does today. We the people have forgotten the active role we must take in our governing bodies, and it has gotten to the point where our freedoms are at stake.
- Piracy needs to be quelled. While there is an essential distinction between your common file sharer and MegaUpload, we all still must pitch in and do our part to eliminate blatant theft. Those of you that have HDDs full of pirated movies, music, and software should give more thought to legitimate avenues for obtaining this content. This is NOT to endorse SOPA or PIPA in any way, shape, or form; this is solely to say that those of you that share files too often should take a step back and consider the implications of your actions.
- Corporations need to embrace technology or risk becoming obsolete. Should the MPAA and RIAA embrace new technologies, they could slash distribution costs using torrent files and slash advertising costs by inciting viral advertisement campaigns. This world is quickly becoming less dependent on brick and mortar stores, and more dependent on the virtual world, and those that fight this fact only serve to hold us all back.
To wrap things up, I’ll end on a less-than-sweet note; our fight is far from over. SOPA and PIPA may be tabled for now, but the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (or ACTA) and the grossly misnamed Protecting Children From Internet Pornographers Act of 2011 have reared their ugly heads and the call to arms must be sounded once more. For the time being, you can contact your representatives, get involved with your local political organizations, and spread the word through any channels you have at your disposal. I’ll be doing my part here and elsewhere.
This is what eternal vigilance looks like folks, and as unattractive as you may find it, I promise it looks much better than our future should we choose not to get involved.