Have you heard of SOPA? If you have, chances are you have heard one or other variation on the quite hysterical opposition to it which is being organised online. Various websites are planning to “go dark”. Companies with the temerity to support it are subject to boycotts to get them to back down. The end of the internet is being foretold. This is all about evil big businesses (media companies) trying to destroy and criminalise ordinary people and nifty internet startups (like, um, Google). So we’re told.
I don’t propose to go into a lengthy debate about the issues because once a debate has descended into such cartoonish caricatures, most intelligent people will be naturally sceptical anyway (having said which, see the update below). If a reasoned and reasonable debate is being had, it’s probably not happening anywhere in the first few pages of Google search results. (On the other hand, this article might be helpful).
For me, the core issue is simple. Do we need the internet to be better at supporting those who seek to earn their living from creativity? In my view: yes. If so, do we need the law to help? In my view: yes.
One particular article, though, did strike me as richly ironic.
Cory Doctorow, never exactly restrained on the subject of piracy and copryright, says that his website Boing Boing could never exist in a post-SOPA world because “making one link would require checking millions … of pages…”.
Leaving aside the ridiculousness of that statement, the irony is that right now, that’s exactly what copyright owners are required to do in order to try to police and defend their rights. Thanks to the ill-conceived “safe harbour” provisions of the DMCA and their equivalents in other laws, copyright infringement is effectively unactionable without constant, active policing of the whole internet. Which is obviously not feasible. That is one of the reasons why some of the biggest companies on the internet are able to exploit and profit from content without ever checking rights at all, and why so few companies which invest in content creation are able to thrive online.
So even if it were true, Doctorow’s outrage would ring a bit hollow to all those whose investment in creativity is constantly undermined by an internet built for piracy. SOPA, which fundamentally asks for people to take responsibilty for their actions, in his mind, “…is more than foolish. Foolishness can be excused. It’s more than greed. Greed is only to be expected. It is evil, and it must be fought.”
Such hyperbole is an insult to the idea of intelligent debate. By reducing the issue to a David v Goliath, Good v Evil, Big Bad Media Companies v Ordinary People it also insults the millions of people who would aspire to make a living by being professional creators.
Update. I thought I could get away without explaining about SOPA at all but a couple of people have askefd for a little background. SOPA stands for Stop Online Piracy Act and a piece of proposed US legislation aimed at making it easier for content owners to take action against sites which are dedicated to piracy. Some of the arguments against it focus on the possible unintended consequences (sites innocently linking to other sites which host infringing content getting caught by the rules) and others on other details. There is lots online about it, mostly saying why it’s awful and the end of the internet as we know it. There are other more calm and thoughful articles to be found as well. This one, for example. And this WSJ leader.