Photo by K. M. McCoy.
It’s hard to believe that the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act, now slowly but surely working its way through Congress, started out as a no-brainer. Originally formed in the House Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support, the bill targeted only foreign websites perpetuating piracy in order to save American jobs in the entertainment industry. What SOPA and its sister bill in the Senate (the PROTECT IPA) have turned into, however, is one massive impending public relations disaster akin to a few years ago when the RIAA began suing college kids for downloading music.
Recent provisions added to both bills give the government power to shut down any site that hosts any copyrighted content without permission. What does that mean? Just by uploading a music video from YouTube that wasn’t specifically uploaded by the artist or their label, a user could potentially give the government grounds to shut down an entire social media community, like say Facebook.
At least that’s how it sounds on paper, but given how long it took the Justice Department to complete its wide-spread sting of domestic downloading sites last year, a comprehensive strike against a site as large as Facebook doesn’t seem likely. Still, the possibility remains and thousands of American firms including Yahoo, Google, and the all-mighty Facebook have voiced gross disapproval of the bill, many of which are threatening to withdraw their membership from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce if the bill passes.
To the credit of the bill’s authors, there are obvious legal complications in differentiating a social network where user-related content innocently stumbles on copyright infringement (i.e. YouTube), and a website that hosts bootlegs of recently released movies for free. While some of the former variety might be deserving of reasonable legal ramifications, it stands to reason that only the latter truly deserves to have its domain name revoked. Yet where the real dividing line occurs in this debate appears to be over long-standing feuds between lobbying groups who’d just as soon be rid of those sites the bill targets, however unlikely that may be (i.e. the Motion Picture Association of America), and legislators who argue that a law this drastic will no doubt have a debilitating affect on free speech and innovation.
Common ground between these opposing forces appears slight at best, but there are those in the middle who are more optimistic. Originally, the two largest trade groups in service to the software industry, the Business Software Alliance (BSA) and the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), came out in tepid support of the bill. As their respective members became wary of the bill’s implications, so did they. After the aforementioned provisions were added, the BSA has condemned the current version of SOPA but maintained that it merely “needs work” in order to balance concerns over innovation, privacy, security, and freedom of speech. For the BSA’s open-mindedness, one prominent member, security research group, and antivirus distributor, Kaspersky Labs declared the measure was too little, too late, and that it would end its BSA membership in 2012.
Having written about the complex relationship between online piracy and Internet censorship in the past, I have trouble in siding with commentators who maintain that BitTorrents is a necessary evil in order to ensure the government’s hands stay out of the Internet. At the same time, the government can obviously be quite sloppy in its regulation. As a Slate editorial against SOPA articulates, a government sting on child pornography websites accidentally tagged 84,000 innocent sites with a bewildering disclaimer page reminding users that “Advertisement, distribution, transportation, receipt, and possession of child pornography constitute federal crimes…”
I’m also concerned about what this law might mean to the independent artist, more specifically the independent musician. Those without record labels or PR firms to promote their music rely on the free flow of information and their music (even by possibly less than legal means) for their exposure. If we rely on the government to monitor copyrighted content, not only will the protections that creatives and innovators seek take forever to implement but the exposure they need equally stands to be drastically inhibited.
What seems most logical, at least for the posterity of music, is for artists to monitor their own work; that way, plagiarists and bootleggers can be properly dealt with while innocent recommendations via social media can be forgiven, all on a case-by-case basis. I know what you’re thinking: “How could an artist possibly police the eternity of the Internet for every possible infringement on their intellectual property?” In which case, I encourage you to read Courtney Garcia’s piece on the recent partnership between the Zappa Family Trust and a company called TuneSat that ran earlier this week on BTR.
I have not personally investigated nor solicited the use of TuneSat myself (since I’m no longer an actively recording musician), so I can’t speak to the integrity of its services. And while I’m sure that the technology can’t be perfect since it is brand new, it doesn’t negate the fact that, in regards to sites like Facebook and YouTube, individual policing of the Internet is indeed possible and far more practical than sweeping government controls that might make the use of these services agonizing.
But nothing justifies the continued existence of services that obviously and egregiously undermine the integrity of intellectual property in this country. As much as they have been a part of everything liberating about the fusion of Internet and art, they’ve completely devalued all entertainment enterprises and works (music most especially). Celebrate all you want over the “death of the record label” or “getting rid of the middle man” and the role that Internet piracy has played in making these half-truths possible; they would only be milestones worth celebrating if a significantly increased portion of artists were actually making sustainable incomes from their music.
Instead, that income has been mostly transferred to Internet Service Providers whose potential for censorship over the Internet poses to be far more debilitating than anything the Justice Department is capable of and we have Internet piracy largely to thank for that. There may be very little anyone, be they the government, artists, or industry lobbyists can do to change the fact that the consumer believes music should be free; but we can at least take the proverbial ball back from those who have no vested interest in the arts yet reap an unfair portion of its benefits.