SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, has caused quite a stir among online providers of information, products and social networking services, among others…to the extent that some, like Wikipedia, went “black” today in protest and to show people what a world with censored or deleted sites they rely on might look like. I don’t claim to be an expert on SOPA, or even a casually knowledgeable source of information, but I do have some legitimate thoughts to share all the same.
What I do know is that the web is a huge place, and copyright infringement can be a hard thing to pinpoint at time. If I find an image on the web, but have no idea who the original creator of it is, but I have a disclaimer that I will happily remove or credit any image if the artist asks me too…well, have I infringed? For one thing, I don’t make any money off this blog, indirectly or directly. So have I truly pirated anything, since I don’t profit?
Also, the law as currently envisioned is overly broad and would allow the government to be very ham-handed. Also, knowing the government, and how big the web is, “justice” will be meted out very unevenly, haphazardly and inequitably. A lot of big abusers, most of them probably, will continue to find ways to profit and to avoid punishment. Smaller folks will get the brunt of punishment for relatively innocent acts (much like the war on drugs criminalized users of drugs overwhelmingly rather than going after drug kingpins or big-time dealers). Also, online venues that strive to make information broadly accessible might get punished way out of proportion for minor infractions, causing their much-needed services to be blacked out from the web. And what of small online business owners, who might see their payment system shut down if they ran something they didn’t know was copyright-protected, and possibly have their livelihoods go up in flames.
And even if the government were to try to do this right, it would cost an unbelievable fortune. The FDA has enough problems trying to do proper drug approvals in a timely fashion. The U.S. Patent Office has a huge backlog that it may never catch up with. The IRS, which is a necessary institution (not the case with anything SOPA might create), can cause untold pain and harm to people enforcing policies that have been in place for years; imagine what some fledgling and largely clueless online monitoring agency could do in terms of damage.
The web has grown so much and achieved so much for society (worldwide) precisely because the government didn’t try to hinder or help it. It was something that needed entrepreneurial energy and minimal oversight. It still is.
Yes, piracy is a problem. But an overly broad hammer-style solution isn’t going to work. Nor should folks like the movie studios, cable networks, music producers or anyone else who fears their products will be pirated online be coddled by an ill-advised governmental push to be the new sheriff in town. Those who have products that might be easily pirated in most cases need to get their heads out of their asses, stop thinking in pre-Internet strategies, and evolve. They need to grow up, adapt and find new ways to make things work.
It’s a new world, and I sure as hell don’t want a bunch of politicians who are largely ignorant of how the web works and why to be telling us how things will be run there. And imagine the ways that government could misuse SOPA to shut down sites that simply say things it doesn’t like, on piracy pretenses.
Fuck SOPA. There are already copyright infringement laws, and those who are infringed can use them to seek relief.