Sunday, January 22, 2012

What Now for Internet Piracy?

So SOPA is to be kicked into the long grass which means it is at least postponed if not killed altogether. For those who have not been following the Stop Online Piracy Act debate, this is the bill proposed by a U.S Republican Representative to expand the ability of U.S. law enforcement to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property (IP) and counterfeit goods. Supporters of SOPA said it would protect IP as well as the jobs and livelihoods of people (and organisations) involved in creating books, films music, photographs etc. Opponents reckoned the legislation threatened free speech and innovation and would enable law enforcement officers to block access to entire internet domains as well as violating the First Amendment. Inevitably much of the digerati came out in flat opposition of SOPA and staged an internet blackout on 18th January where many sites "went dark" and Wikipedia was unavailable altogether. Critics of SOPA cited that the fact the bill was supported by the music and movie industry was an indication that it was just another way of these industry dinosaurs protecting their monopoly over content distribution. So, a last minute victory for the new digital industry over the old analogue one?

And yet...

Check out this TED talk by digital commentator Clay Shirky called Why SOPA is a bad idea. Shirky in his usual compelling way puts a good case for why SOPA is bad (the talk was published before the recent announcement on the bill being postponed) but the real interest for me in this talk was from the comments about it. There are many people saying yes SOPA may be a bad bill but there is nonetheless a real problem with content being given away that should otherwise be paid for and that content creators (whether they be software developers, writers or photographers) are simply losing their livelihoods because people are stealing their work. Sure, there are copyright laws that are meant to prevent this sort of thing happening but who can really chase down the web sites and peer-to-peer networks that "share" content they have not created or paid for? SOPA may have been a bad bill and really have been about protecting the interests of large corporations who just want to carry on doing what they have always done without having to adapt or innovate. However without some sort of regulation that protects the interests of individuals or small start-ups wishing to earn a living from their art, killing SOPA has not moved us forward in any way and certainly not protected their interests. Unfortunately some sort if internet regulation is inevitable.

For a historical perspective of why this is likely to be so, see the TED talk by the Liberal Democrat Paddy Ashdown called The global power shift. Ashdown argues that "where power goes governance must follow" and that there is plenty of historical evidence showing what happens when this is not the case (the recent/current financial meltdown to name but one).

So SOPA may be dead but something needs to replace it and if we are to get the right kind of governance we must all participate in the debate else the powerful special interest groups will get their own way. Clay Shirky argued that if SOPA failed to be passed it would be replaced by something else. Now then is our chance to ensure that whatever that is, is right for content creators as well as distributors.

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