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How The Stop Online Piracy Act Will Kill Innovation

America is fond of chiding other nations about freedom of speech in the internet age. Leaders including President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are constantly reminding their global counterparts, especially in places like China, that internet censorship is a detriment to open government and honest self-rule. Yet, the Obama administration has used tactics that smell of censorship, and Congress is making common cause with a corporate cartel that wants to turn the internet into little more than an enhanced form of cable television. In the name of protecting copyright holders, they would censor the internet and force entrepreneurs to get permission to innovate.

Hollywood and the music industry lead the copyright cartel. They have been at war with the internet – and all technology they can’t control – since they realised that digital technology was creating huge challenges to their way of doing business. They have allies, to varying degrees, in other industries that include book publishing, software and pharmaceuticals, all of which are seeing their markets change and, in some cases, erode.

They’d already persuaded the US Congress to enact copyright laws that are grossly unbalanced on the side of the copyright holders and against the rights of users. Now, they’re back at the trough, and this time, they want to eliminate one of the few provisions that has any balance whatever: the so-called “safe harbor” giving immunity to websites that host other people’s postings. (The people doing the posting have no immunity.) When notified of a violation, sites must take down that material until and unless the original poster challenges that takedown.

Without safe harbor and several related provisions, much of the internet as we know it could not exist, because forcing websites to pre-screen everything that comes from users is untenable. And that is one reason why the copyright cartel’s friends and puppets in Congress have introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa), a bill designed, among other things, as an end run around safe harbor.

Today, the House Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing on Sopa (pdf). It’s a sham, of course: a stacked-deck collection of proponents with little time granted to people who want to keep the internet open and free for innovation. But Sopa and a companion bill in the Senate are being fast-tracked by politicians who either don’t realise what they are doing or don’t care about the damage they would cause to speech and innovation.

What Sopa’s proponents say is simple: online infringement is so bad and so prevalent that extraordinary measures are now needed to slow it down. They say they only want to go after the most egregious violators of copyright. A movie industry association blogger wrote that it would “target foreign rogue sites that knowingly and deliberately engage in the illegal distribution of stolen content, including movies and television shows, for profit”.

This is a partial truth, concealing a huge lie. The legislation is vaguely written and over-broad – no doubt, deliberately – and it would give copyright holders weapons that would go far, far beyond the “foreign rogue sites” the industry claims are the target. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has ably explained much of the damage this bill could cause, but here are a few especially bad provisions.

For example, copyright holders could invite payment systems such as PayPal, Visa and Mastercard to cut off services to allegedly infringing operations – and the payment systems would be granted immunity from lawsuits, giving them an incentive to do Hollywood’s bidding with little recourse for the affected sites.

The bill would also enshrine the already dubious practice of ordering internet domain-name service providers (DNS) to essentially blacklist web addresses. So if you typed “” into your browser, you would not be taken there, even if the site existed. This breaks a fundamental feature of the internet, and is slated to get worse.

It also could force software developers to put censorship tools into their products or face lawsuits or worse. Current copyright law – remember, it’s already balanced on the holders’ side – has been used to chill activities of people, including software developers and researchers, who were, by no stretch, engaged in infringement.

The damage Sopa would cause to existing services is bad enough. But the longer-range damage is literally incalculable, because the legislation is aimed at preventing innovation – and speech – that the cartel can’t control. If this law had been passed years ago, YouTube could not exist today in anything remotely like the form it has taken. The cost of serving Hollywood’s interest would have been too high, but the reality is that investors would have never gone near the project. They would have been persuaded that the risks were too high.

In recent days, the technology industry has become more outspoken about the danger (pdf), and public interest organisations are shouting their alarm (pdf). But the opposition has been late to recognise the threat, and is outmatched by the lobbying clout of Hollywood and the cartel overall.

Meanwhile, the major media have been essentially silent on the issue. I’m not surprised. Big Media is an ally and member of the copyright cartel – and there may be more than a few people in traditional news organisations who fear the internet more than they worry about stifling speech.

The anger over this legislation is mounting, thanks to grassroots opposition. Congressman Ron Paul, currently a Republican presidential candidate, is one of a growing number of representatives to oppose it. It may not be too late to stop the Great American Firewall.

Today, Wednesday, has been proclaimed “Web Censorship Day” by a coalition of people and organisations involved in this fight. They’re putting banners and popups on websites to demonstrate the danger of Sopa. Listen to what they are saying; this is your internet, not Hollywood’s, but it is in clear danger.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian.

7 Responses to “How The Stop Online Piracy Act Will Kill Innovation”

  1. “I’ve been deeply concerned about this as it looks potentially to be the
    death of user generated content and innovation within the tech sector”

    Complete and utter bunk.

    “the death of user generated content” – there is no requirement that UGC has to have copyrighted materials in it. When I make my videos I use only royalty free music.

    As for the proposed death of innovation, if that innovation requires the blatant violation of copyright laws as YouTube did then I say good riddance.

    I prefer to have a tad bit of integrity. I guess Jon Bains doesn’t.

  2. Christy King

    As long as we’re stating opinion as fact, here’s my two cents. People don’t care where content comes from. It doesn’t matter whether NBC owns it, a studio owns it, or your brother owns it. Consumers simply want to consume. They just want to find what they want and make it work easily and quickly on any device. 

    In most cases, I don’t think people resist the idea of paying a reasonable amount of money to get what they want, or watching a commercial or two, but the innovative effort in making cash transactions fast and easy has yet to catch up with the innovation of simply stealing content and putting it somewhere easy to use.  When people steal other people’s content to fill up an easy to use UI, the process of finding content in the new UI becomes easier/better than using the content owner’s method. It’s been my career experience that the reason content owners’ search and UI systems are so cumbersome and slow to change is because content owners are forced to waste inordinate amounts of time, energy and money trying to building systems that protect their content from would be thieves. Sorry, I meant innovators. 

    The next time you get locked out of your car or house and have to go through the hassle of waiting and paying for someone with better technology to break you back into what you rightfully own, remember that the reason you have to go through this hassle is because people came up with “innovative” ways to take what you own, forcing you into the hassle of having to protect it. 

  3. Unless you’ve been living under a rock you will have heard about the legislation that they are trying to rush through in the States right now to curtail the rise of online piracy using methods which really are best described as draconian. I’ve been deeply concerned about this as it looks potentially to be the death of user generated content and innovation within the tech sector – something I’ve been part of for over twenty years.

    Well I’ve had at attitude readjustment, I’m going to go with the flow and embrace what i just realised is the future of business models for the content world.

    You see the the anti-SOPA lobby have assumed that the MPAA / RIAA (collectively known as the MAFIAA) weren’t willing to adapt and viewed folk like Anonymous as a threat. That sending letters to individuals a-la ACS-LAW wasn’t a viable strategy. Turns out we were wrong. They actually saw an opportunity. They watched, they learned and are proposing a new model even more impressive than the good old ‘Denial of Service’ attack the hackers use.

    (Denial of Safe Harbour)

    This new ‘model’ is fantastic especially as  you need virtually NO technical, creative or legal skills to play. It’s truly open and democratic.

    Here’s how it works and how I plan to make millions! (so don’t tell anyone!)

    STAGE 1 – A&R

    Create some ‘music’. Highly recommend GarageBand autoplay instruments. Since a 4 year old can use it, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes to make a tune.
    For a one time fee of $35 dollars register your opus with – you can do it online so no need to move off the couch/stool.
    Go to Tunecore and get it popped on iTunes for 99c . Make sure you come up with a cool sounding name for your band and label – I’m going with ‘Cognitive Dissonance’ for the band and ‘RogueDoSHRecords’ – am thinking my first track will be ‘Legalise Extortion’ again please don’t steal it as I haven’t registered it yet.
    Go to WordPress (if it still exists) and create your label site – to be honest you don’t have to do much more than say ‘welcome to… XX records home of YY’ and pop some copyright notices everywhere and a link to iTunes.
    Have a cocktail  – you are now in that elite group – the Content Owner!
    Enlist some friends to help out and repeat 1-5  with them – I’m guessing 10 mates/labels would be enough for most situations – a mini Anonymous if you will.
    At this point you *could* try and get folk to buy your tune but frankly it isn’t worth the effort instead each of you upload the others tracks to YouTube and/or create some torrents.
    So far I reckon they should have taken about a day of ‘real’ time, some hangover recovery time plus however long it takes to get the copyright approved.

    STAGE 2 – Exercise your Rights

    All you have to do is find a bunch of blogs ( any site on any subject will do these days that allow comments) and get your mates to pop some links to your track on YouTube or to the torrent.
    Send the site owner an email accusing them of being ‘Dedicated to infringement’ – and that you will NOT report them to their ISP, payment partner etc if they hand over I dunno – $1000 bucks sounds fair.
    Now at this point you would expect the site owner to take it down, if they do just pop it up again ( or even better pop one of your mates tracks up to confuse them. )
    After you’ve done this a few times you announce that you have got a some class-action from a bunch of legacy sounding labels including ‘Phonographic Memories’, ‘The Long Tail Players’, ‘8 Track Marks ‘, ‘Tape me up, Tape me down’, ‘Cassette My Ass’ and of course the hip-hop label ‘MP3some’.
    Give them one last chance to pay up (it’s going to cost them $5k now btw)
    If they DO pay up – wait a couple of days /weeks and repeat with some new labels until they just give up and shut down
    If they DON’T pay up shop them to their ISP and Payment partner who are so inundated with these claims that they’ll have no choice but to close the infringing scum down, just in case it’s legit. Don’t worry about needing legalese I’m sure you will be able to find a form letter online to help you out – no lawyers required!
    Repeat on as many sites as you feel like, the smaller the better of course. I’m thinking of going for gardening blogs myself – the poor dears won’t know what hit them.

    I imagine a motivated team of ten could manage a few dozen each a day while sitting in the pub. Even with a 10% conversion rate you’ll make a load of cash, secure in the knowledge that those who didn’t play ball won’t be able to make any money for themselves! Win Win!

    You can of course do this with anything that can be copyrighted so feel free to  make some films of you and your mates celebrating in the pub (Dogma movies are due for a resurgence anyway) and copyright them – go for it! You’ve even got the soundtracks ready made so you can pop a compilation out. Even Better! You are now ‘Multimedia Copyright Owner’ – diversification is everything in this day and age.

    And there you have it – as far as I can tell under SOPA its totally legal – we as Copyright Owners and we are entitled to get paid without having to sell even ONE bit of content, attract ONE fan or play ONE gig. Superb. We truly have entered The Golden Age of Copyright.

    If anybody says ‘Conspiracy to defraud’ just say ‘The left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing’ or better yet ‘the tea-boy is going to lose his job UNLESS we do it’.

    Go on – try this at home!
    the business model for the post-modern creative!

    And that’s why I’ve learned to stop worrying and love  SOPA, it’s going to make things so much better.

  4. The guardian gets to compain about copyright because it’s a charity.   Meantime they censor any opposing views!  See Rob Levine’s book “free ride”.  Unfortunately for the rest of us, we actually need to work to get paid, and that doesn’t work so well when people make money on theft and claim they can’t do anything about it. 

  5. mark sherwood

    Let me get this right.  It’s OK to steal someone else’s property as long as you use it to set up a new business ?     I’m sure most real entrepreneurs would distance themselves from that view.    You cite Youtube – I would too, they built a brand on the back of stealing – it wasn’t the technology that did it, it was the content, content that wasn’t theirs.    So the lesson is hire a bank of lawyers, start ignoring copyright and help yourself.    It’s just corporate theft dressed up as cool young kids innovating.  And unless checked will lead to less product and economic development, not more.