SOPA and PIPA: The wrong tools to combat online piracy

January 18, 2012

My day job is to write about and report on technology. I get paid to create content. Original content. The people I write for make money off the words I commit to paper (or, you know, a Web page). I’m a content creator in the truest sense. That’s how I earn a living.

In another life, in another time, I made a different kind of content. I used to produce music, I was in bands, and I traveled the world disc jockeying. I got paid then to create content, putting out records (real, vinyl records) and helping other bands to make the kind of music they wanted to make.

As a content creator, I fully understand how precious ownership is and how painful theft can be. In fact, a sample of one of my records was used in a snippet of a car commercial in the early 2000s. The song was recorded by a jingle-maker who clearly figured no one would mind that he didn’t produce entirely original content. I was never compensated for what was blatant theft — and you know it’s bad when friends call you up on the phone and tell you they just heard your song on TV.

Yet I oppose the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) — two laws that are doing the rounds in Washington — ostensibly meant to protect content creators from theft in the form of piracy.

And you should, too.

If you don’t know what SOPA is, you should probably spend some time on Wikipedia investigating the bill. Of course, Wikipedia shut down its site Wednesday to voice opposition to the laws (Google, Reddit and several other sites also protested similarly), so I guess that wouldn’t have been a good day to get your facts.

If Wikipedia is still unavailable by the time you read this, let me quickly explain the law. (As I said, there are actually two laws making waves, but for the sake of brevity, I’m only going to focus on SOPA.)

The gist of the bill is that it gives content creators the power to force ISPs, search engines or payment services to shut down access to a Web site that the owner believes violated its copyright. On its face, the bill is designed to stop access to foreign Web sites that are profiting off of stolen content. (U.S.-based business can simply be dragged into court.) In reality, it’s much more insidious than that.

Say a French company just started a social networking site in which users can upload videos of themselves singing. Now let’s say some kids upload a video of themselves singing their favorite Britney Spears song, not even playing back the original recording but simply singing along innocently to a song they like.

In the eyes of Spears’s record label or any number of parties associated with her continued cash flow, that might very well look like an instance of piracy — and indeed, major labels have had content pulled off YouTube for similar “violations.” All the label has to do is send a letter to someone such as your ISP and request that the service stop routing traffic to the offending site, and, boom, no more French-sharing site for U.S. Internet users. And what’s really scary is that U.S. Internet service providers have immunity when it comes to what they can pull from their networks, so that French site might not even have a clear path to resolving the issue.

Now take that concept and begin to apply it across all the places you could potentially find “infringing” material. Sites about art, sites about movies, sites that let users generate content of all types — some of that content containing pieces of other work that should be considered fair use by any modern standard. Suddenly, a lot of destinations on the Internet will begin to look like island vacation spots — that is, they’re really hard to get to. And the impact won’t just be cultural or legal; the technical workings of the Internet itself will be dramatically affected.

As my colleague Nilay Patel said when comparing online piracy to DVD piracy in New York City: It’s “the effective equivalent of blowing up every road, bridge and tunnel in New York to keep people from getting to one bootleg [DVD] stand in Union Square — but leaving the stand itself alone.”

Now to my point. The SOPA and PIPA bills are being driven through our government by lobbyists who have been given a mandate to protect private companies and their profits by any means necessary. As a part of a private company that makes its money through content creation and delivery, I understand the sentiment — I just disagree with the solution.

SOPA and PIPA are like taking a sledgehammer to something when you need a scalpel. The laws are too far-reaching and too simplistic to accurately police real piracy online, and they have been created by people who either don’t fully understand the Internet or can’t appreciate its value.

Free speech and common sense demand a better and more thoughtful law. That law has to come from an organic place, built by the people and companies that live and work on the Internet. Google, Facebook and Twitter, it’s time to get your lobbyists on the phone.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge, a technology news Web site.

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