Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Are SOPA and PIPA evil? Well, yes and no.

A lot of buzz is being made in tech circles today as Google, Reddit, Wikipedia and other online giants are conduction a blackout to protest a pair of bills making their way through the House and Senate that are designed to decrease online copyright infringement. Called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate companion the Protect IP Act (PIPA), the two bills would give corporations the ability to have the Attorney General of the United States shut down Websites that repeatedly infringe on copyright.

On the surface, this sounds fantastic. Creative professionals (like me!) have lamented our work being used by others for their financial gain without compensation. "Borrowing" music, photographs, artwork, video, etc. for use on various blogs and other websites is rampant. Often these secondary websites are making money by selling advertising, charging for subscription services or other means, and not compensating the originator of the work. Worse still, as in the case of newspaper websites, the site taking the story, photo, etc. takes hits away from the organization that paid to have the work produced in the first place. So policing this is good, right?

Again, yes and no. Here's where SOPA and PIPA go wrong, big time. Part of these bills allow an organization to let loose the dogs of the Attorney General's office on anyone THEY feel violates copyright. No courts. No due process. No evidence. Just shut 'em down. That flies in the face of not only the spirit but the wording of the First Amendment. It means I could go to jail just for posting the above image of Wikipedia's blackout on this blog if Wikipedia chose to report me.

It is obvious why tech circles and the blogosphere see this as a threat. There are hundreds of websites and blogs that would shut down if they couldn't steal work from others, perhaps for the better. But there are also so many that help integrate and intertwine the various sources of information on the Internet that would be either shut down or severely limited by these bills. And from a technical aspect, there are too many ways to get around the proposed blocking of a website to make it effective.

Now, don't get me wrong. Something is broken when an organization can pay to have a creative work done, then someone with a fly-by-night "news" website can come along and use the work without permission or compensation. But in today's world of information flow, the Internet has to remain a place where information can flow uncensored. Something has to be done, but SOPA and PIPA are not it!

Being financially dependent the publishing industry, I have a vested interest in how these bills play out in the coming months. It has been difficult for me to formulate an opinion, and I've been following the debate for a while. On one hand, seeing industries like mine lose money to every person who uses a story or photograph without permission in its entirety without any kind of link back really makes me mad. On the other, I wouldn't be able to stand watching industry executives shut down Joe Q. Blogger for putting one picture on their blog in a heavy-handed attempt to maintain the bottom line.

There is a middle ground here. Congress needs to find it. As written, I think these two bills are flawed.

Ironically, Twitter currently has an excellent summary page of information about the two bills and how they threaten the free flow of information, complete with other links to outside analysis. Consider the sources of the information you read, but educate yourself on these two bills.

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