SOPA: Like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer

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By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor

Last Wednesday, more than 10,000 web sites, including Wikipedia, Google, Craigslist and WordPress, went black or blacked out portions of their content in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act a law intended to put a stop to online software and media piracy.  The act of mass protest caused most of the bill’s sponsors and supporters to rethink their position.  The bill has since been delayed in the House of Representatives, and its evil twin PIPA, the Protect IP Act, has met a similar fate in the Senate.  

The bills would have given unprecedented and legally questionable power to copyright holders.  Under SOPA, a rights holder could have requested a payment facilitator shut down access to a “rogue” website, who would then have to explain how it was not in violation of the law.  In other words, the burden of proof would be on the accused, in contrast to centuries of legal precedent.  It would also have made downloading copyrighted content a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

The bills were heavily sponsored and promoted by dozens of media corporations and artists’ groups including Sony Music, Viacom, Time Warner and Disney.  Even infamous anti-tax fanatic, Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, was in on it.  

The bill failed, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over.

In fact, the companies and media conglomerates guilty of promoting these monstrosities remain as stubborn as ever.  On the day of the protest, Jonathan Lamy, president of the Recording Industry Association of America tweeted “After Wikipedia blackout (sic), somewhere, a student today is doing original research and getting his/her facts straight.  Perish the thought.”  Yes, he is.  And the facts aren’t on your side, sir.

The goal of the legislation, after all, was not just protecting intellectual property.  Like virtually all acts of censorship, it was about controlling how, when and where we access media and information.  The recording industry never really caught up with the digital revolution that happened 10 years ago, when mp3 players took the music world by storm.  They have since fought tooth and nail to protect distribution rights to movies and other forms of entertainment, with limited success.  Industry sources claim that $200 to $250 billion in sales is lost every year due to piracy.

This sounds impressive, but in fact the numbers can’t be verified. Piracy is a black box when it comes to calculating its cost.  The industry appears to assume that every pirated copy of a movie would have been purchased legitimately were it not for the availability of illegal downloads.  This is a false equivalence.  An illegal download represents an illegal download, not a lost sale.  Just because your roommate watched a movie over a bit torrent for free, doesn’t necessarily mean he would have been willing to pay $20 for the DVD.   He may not have bought the movie at all, making any calculation of potential profit meaningless.  

The same principle is true for music sales.  Back in the twentieth century we had little choice but to pay $20 for a CD with maybe one song we actually liked; today we can download one song for 99 cents.  That doesn’t mean the industry is losing money; it means customers are in control.  And illegal downloads don’t mean lost revenue because piracy does not equal sales.

I am not defending piracy.  Artists, musicians, writers and other content creators have every right to protect their intellectual property.  A lot of work goes in to creating a song, book or movie, and creators have a right to profit from their work.  But SOPA and PIPA are bad law written by people who don’t understand how Internet commerce works.  They deserve to be scrapped and replaced with better laws, preferably written by better, more web-savvy legislators.

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