Today, many important websites are “going dark” to protest the anti-piracy bills working their way through the US Congress. I’m joining in this protest, because I think the bills would “break” the Internet as we know it, as the only medium known to humanity that could enable virtually anyone to access speech published by virtually anyone else without barrier of cost or scarcity. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA)  and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) aim to curtail online piracy of intellectual property, seen by the big content industry players in Hollywood and the music industry as a serious risk to their stability and livelihood. As noble as an attempt to prevent freeloaders from profiting by the work of others may be, the bills have been likened to using a bunker busting nuclear bomb when the tool needed is a scalpel.
SOPA and PIPA are particularly targeted at foreign “rogue websites” not directly covered by US copyright law. However, because the operators of foreign sites are not covered by US law, the remedies provided for in the bills apply to US Internet companies, like ISPs and search engines, who would be tasked with modifying their services to expeditiously “prevent access by its subscribers…to the foreign infringing site that is subject to [non-adversarial court orders].” Particularly, many have noted that the methods available to ISPs to block websites pretty much entail DNS blocking, which is one of the toolss used by China to run the “Great Firewall of China”, and index censorship demanded by the Chinese government for search engines to operate in the country.
On Saturday, the White House issued a statement in response to petitions to veto the bills if they arrived on the president’s desk. The Administration rejected certain provisions of the legislation, including the blocking of sites at the DNS level. The White House affirmed its support, however, for the aim of the law and for creating new legal tools to combat piracy of US intellectual property. One of the most substantial parts of the memo, I think, was a call to action for the public and particularly those who oppose SOPA and PIPA.
The President’s Challenge:
So, rather than just look at how legislation can be stopped, ask yourself: Where do we go from here? Don’t limit your opinion to what’s the wrong thing to do, ask yourself what’s right… Washington needs to hear your best ideas about how to clamp down on rogue websites and other criminals who make money off the creative efforts of American artists and rights holders. We should all be committed to working with all interested constituencies to develop new legal tools to protect global intellectual property rights without jeopardizing the openness of the Internet. Our hope is that you will bring enthusiasm and know-how to this important challenge.
I think that fundamentally government-ordered censorship jeopardizes the openness of the internet and that there is no way around that fact. But I want to take the Administration’s challenge seriously. As I wondered what the tech community can do to help SOPA’s supporters stop suffering from piracy, I came across a little parable asking this question on one of the blogs of the OReilly publishing company, one of the publishing companies that “gets” the Internet and how to make money with post-scarcity models. “What more does government want–or deserve–from the tech world?” Nat Torkington :
All I can think is: we gave you the Internet. We gave you the Web. We gave you MP3 and MP4. We gave you e-commerce, micropayments, PayPal, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, the iPad, the iPhone, the laptop, 3G, wifi–hell, you can even get online while you’re on an AIRPLANE. What the hell more do you want from us?
The best thing we could give to the content industry would be a business model that would allow them to flourish and exploit the opportunities of the Internet. That and the technology needed to fulfill the promise of that model. Except, I look all around my Internet and see people using, and talking about, these business models. And they’re practically giving away the technology that make them possible. I configure free WordPress sites for companies and individuals, and I’ve dabbled in open source shopping cart software. These are the tools you can use to sell content to people, you just have to find them where they are, set the price, and give them a “reason to buy.”
The new models for looking at content that I explored in my thesis (ch.4) are probably far too radical for industry insiders to start with, because I advocate giving up a lot more control than the minimum amount needed to participate in post-scarcity culture. In general, Internet people are just giving business models away, but the content industry is slow to pick them up. They are slow to pick up practices that would let them exploit the open Internet, because these models represent losing some control over the distribution that they traditionally have enjoyed. (And it’s old news that this industry is slow to accept new technology and quick to sue about it.) But their control is based in scarcity, and how hard and expensive it is to distribute content. It is no longer hard nor expensive. What is hard now is finding the right content to spend your limited money and time on. The real value the content industry can provide now is a matter of curation of the right content to the right fans. And I think there is still a lot of money to be made there.
These are the tools and the technologies to reduce piracy and make it irrelevant. Not new legal tools to wipe websites out of the view of US media consumers.
One of the saddest things I heard in yesterday’s “#SaveTheInternet” briefing put on by the PCCC was from Brad Burnham of Union Square Ventures talking about the reluctance of investors to risk their money on businesses exploring new models of music delivery because of the risk that these businesses would get sued by the big content players they would be dependent on for content deals. Instead of realizing the potential of the Internet to get their product into the hands of fans, they shoot themselves in the foot trying to preserve their scarcity-based business models. The movie studios fight Netflix at every turn to wring more money out of contracts for less content instead of offering up their whole collections to every Netflix-like customer at a reasonable price. Netflix grew up on the first sale doctrine for physical media but is trying to put out a hand and lead Hollywood into a world where people pay for movies instead of thinking about pirating them. Spotify is closer to the answer to music piracy than SOPA, but it took years for the record labels to allow it into the US. And it’s instructive to remember how UMG killed perfectly legal video service Veoh with litigation. Any Internet startup that is based on user generated content is subject to that risk.
We who protest SOPA and PIPA want to help content find its way to happily paying fans. The one thing that we can’t give them is the destruction of the Internet and the end of scarcity of information that it makes possible. That is what we’re fighting to save today.
I am writing a novel myself, but I know I will not need SOPA and PIPA to defend my ability to sell it, because I will sell it eyes-wide-open in a world where scarcity of content does not have to exist. I will try to connect with fans by selling my work in formats amenable to their needs for a reasonable price. I will publish it under models that let purchasers know that their money directly supports the creation of my books. Fans feel good when they help the artists they love. They want to do it right. Every content creator and publisher can help them do the right thing. I think my part in taking up this challenge is to show how my business model can be successful, to bravely publish under a model that embraces the open Internet, and to see where it takes us.
If you have any questions, SOPA supporters, contact me, and we’ll try to figure them out.
- For the “current” version of the bill text, see this Techdirt story from December 12: Lamar Smith Proposes New Version of SOPA with just a few changes (a ‘Manager’s Amendment’). And it seems we are promised a new manager’s amendment that has yet to be seen that will remove DNS blocking provisions (though it also remains to be seen what Rep. Lamar Smith means by removing them, since his first manager’s amendment had a clause right at the top indicating that the law shall not be construed to make DNS blocking mandatory.. but there really aren’t many other ways the laws remedies could be accomplished by the ISPs responsible for implementing it.
- I thought Nat Torkington was familiar. I particularly liked a post of his from late last year on libraries.