Friday, December 30, 2011


Video killed the Radio Star.
Congress to kill the Internet... star?

Lots of talk about the Bills to Kill The Internet... Hannah Hart's YouTube vid was the first one that hit my Personal YouTube Digest and since then there’s been many other such postings on SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act). A news story was broadcast on NPR yesterday morning, too - well it was about GoDaddy supporting SOPA and ensuing controversy, which was fairly old news by then, but they did talk about the bill itself.

Unfortunately, people are either talking about the consequences (usually in worse case scenarios) or, like in the NPR story, talking about... stuff that completely miss the point.

OK. Here’s what’s up in short bullet points (starting with the basics):

  • Intellectual property (IP) Definition: any original idea that you have. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new better mousetrap or a song lyric, if you thought it up and it’s original, it’s your property.
  • Copyrights (and patents) protect IP - more precisely, it protects your interest in your IP in that someone else can’t make money on your idea. At least without your permission, ideally with a healthy cut of the profits.
  • Piracy is theft. It’s hard to argue otherwise. However - not every instance of someone else using your stuff is piracy/theft/stealing/whatever. There are certain exceptions in US copyright law (keep in mind, I’m not a lawyer) that fall under “fair use” - two big categories are educational use and parody.

But - huge point here - Not Everything That Is Shared On The Internet Is Stolen (outside of Fair Use). Podcasts and original storytelling (the great series Pioneer One comes to mind) are big on the net, most of them are free or donation driven - very few charge you for a subscription. Some even encourage you to share under a Creative Commons license.
  • Should online piracy be stopped? Yeah - that’s like asking should shoplifting be stopped; I’d suspect that many shop keepers would be all for that. Well, why hasn’t it been before now? Media corporations and industry groups have tried - remember all those news stories about kids and grandmas being sued for tens of thousands (in some cases) for file sharing? Remember Napster?

    That’s the problem - it’s not with The Problem, it’s with The Solution. In the past lawsuits have been threatened or filed - and some of them have been ridiculous and/or outrageous - against people how barely knew how to turn on their computers, the computer savvy, and everyone in between (I remember when college campuses were being targeted because of illegal file sharing between students). We’ve also seen file sharing sites put out of business as a result of a general belief that illegal downloads were all that they did.

    Has this stopped online piracy? Ummm... if it had, would we still be talking about this? Part of the problem is that with activity within the US, you can sue the pants off somebody if they’re engaged in this type of activity - but - there are websites that exists outside the US (it’s true!) that do nothing but provide a platform for IP piracy. PirateBay anybody?
Just as an aside, there have been lots of letters sent to PirateBay by media corps and the general response has been, “We’re in Sweden. We’re not breaking any Swedish laws. Stop being stupid.” The general tone is hilarious: you can go to, or if that’s blocked where you are, here’s one at Harvard’s GrepLaw website

To answer this challenge, SOPA would allow media companies to take action against sites that list links to offshore piratey sites as well as those US-based sites that include illegally used copyrighted material.

If the worst case scenario happens, and SOPA with all of its teeth intact passes and is used in the worst way (see the above mentions of lawsuits that have been brought in the past and judge for yourself if the legal system is used in ‘the worst way) then sites like YouTube and Facebook and Pinterest...  basically anything that you can post stuff to - or even post links to anything anywhere else on the net that ‘might’ be pirated can be threatened if not actually shutdown.

One of the arguments against all of this is basically this: social media sites are too valuable in today’s world to allow them to be shut down to “stop” online piracy. Democratic (the ideal, not the political party) demonstrations, if not outright revolutions, have been enabled in part due to the communication that these sites allow.

Of course the other argument is that it would stifle business by giving major corps the power to blacklist start-up websites that allow users to post things to them... which is, like, every site anymore. Barring that, it would at the very least mean that every post with a link would have to checked to make sure that the site being referenced was ‘clean’. And then there’s search engines - if a search engine listed a site that was blacklisted, then that search engine site would be subject to legal action. In short it would give media corporations de facto control over most of the Internet. Where would this leave independent artists who actually want their stuff passed around? As we’ve found out YouTube will take down video because of a letter sent by someone who doesn’t own the material in question - link here - just because that’s their standard response. “So what?” you might say, “It’s just a video.” YouTube also took down an episode of “Tech News Today” that covered the story because it used a footage from the video that Universal did not own. It was put back up later, but as a daily news show, it lost quite a bit of value. (Exactly when did Google’s YouTube become UMG’s punk?)

Having one set of players have that much power of a what, essentially, has evolved into a public space is not a good idea in general. Having major media corporations with the power to, not only pursue legal action against US-based sites, but to have off-shore sites blacklisted by having them removed from the Internet directories that catalog all of the “plain English” addresses (DNS searches for all you techie types).

In the end, if they get to do all of this, will it ‘Stop Online Piracy’? Nope. Unless they are able to completely take down ALL filesharing schemes - forever - then people are going to rip CDs and DVDs and whatever else to their computers. Once it’s digital - maybe the horse isn’t out running around the countryside, but it is definitely out of its stall with the barn door open. Will blacklisting sites work? Nope. Even if they monkey with the directory look-ups, those bad, bad websites still exist out there with a numeric address that you can type in to an address bar. Will blocking traffic to blacklisted sites work? Nope. If you can get off-shore to a site that will let you channel your traffic through them (eg: a proxy site) then you can still pull information from the PirateBay, or anywhere else. To make this work, you’d have to completely monitor all Internet traffic going off-shore... hello China.

As the talk about SOPA continues and I think about what’s driving the push for a bill, I’m reminded of a CD copy protection scheme that Sony spent a good deal of time and money developing. It was defeated by the Magic Marker. Bottom line: if it is convertible to a digital format, it will be pirated, by someone, somewhere - period. The only thing this bill will do is cause - potentially a lot of - collateral damage to the way the common person is able (or not) to use the Internet.

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