Thursday, January 19, 2012

SOPA on the Ropes

The latest in a long line of efforts to censor the internet is wavering. Congressional supporters are abandoning the SOPA/PIPA legislation like rats fleeing a sinking ship. Online protests from Wikipedia and Google (and many others) had their effect. Congressional switchboards were swamped with calls, Google claims 4.5 million people signed their petition, and Wikipedia reports 162 million pageviews on their protest page.

The people have spoken and they must keep speaking.

Because it isn't over yet.

If you've followed me for any length of time, you'll know that I'm vehemently anti-censorship. Sadly, this is not the first attempt to restrict the conversations we have and the things that we share. People who do not understand how the internet works are trying to dictate how the internet should work.

The whole world has noticed. I was contacted today by the German publication Zauberspiegel Online for a comment.  You can read it here in German: but this is an expansion of my comments to them, but really, it's a song I've been singing for awhile now.

Our lives are a collage of shared experiences, a patchwork of the culture that unites us. Our conversations are peppered with movie quotes, our events are back-dropped by the songs playing on the radio or piped through restaurants and coffee shop speakers.

Yet if we try to reflect that part of our lives online, we are "pirates".

SOPA is unnecessarily broad. It will have no effect on so-called media pirates who will simply go around. Instead, it breaks the relationship between the providers of service and the users of the services. It burdens internet companies, websites, and search providers, strangling startups and internet entrepreneurs with pointless regulations.  It requires everyone online to have a working knowledge of some very esoteric legal principles in order to keep out of jail. And copyright is an area of the law so esoteric that even the man who wrote the SOPA legislation violated them on his own website!

This law puts the onus on the owner of the house for all that happens within. It assumes guilt and sidesteps due-process. (Which seems to be a recurring theme lately in Washington DC.) All in the interest of taming the net, in the interest of forcing it to fit a business model that was created before the computer was invented. Rather than evolve to meet the new model, certain powerful elements of our society are seeking to force the rest of us to back track to meet them.

I am a huge fan of copyright. The creation of copyright laws Fundamentally changed the lives of creative individuals everywhere. They changed the world from a place where Charles Dickens was the most popular author in America, but never saw a dime of revenue from the U.S. printings of his stories, to a world where authors, artists, and inventors could benefit from their own creations and use those revenues to devote their time to creating more.

But those laws were intended to champion innovations and advancements so that built upon a previous work to create something new. SOPA and similar laws that stifle, and many creative ideas and advancements are smothered in their cradle.

They were never intended to stifle them.

Otherwise, copyrights and patents would never expire.

If the world had been a place where riffing on existing music was illegal, we would have not jazz. If variations on a theme were illegal we would not have a great deal of classical or modern music. Likewise, if the world had been a place where cracking open your devices and tinkering with the works was illegal, we'd be driving the Model T silent and auto racing would not exist.

Creators have the right to protect their work. But this is not the way to do it.

As a copyright holder, I understand the frustration felt by other copyright holders and I understand the kneejerk lashing-out that can ensue. Likewise do I like to think that there's room for reasoned response and discourse. There has to be a middle ground where the artforms can prosper, the citizens of the world can incorporate their culture into their lives (and Thereby spread by word of mouth how great your material is) and do it all without throwing open the gates and making it so that artists simply can not support themselves by their efforts.

Censorship is never the answer and therefore, SOPA cannot be.

HR 3261: the so-called Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which is currently before the US Senate, and its sister bill the Protect Intellectual Properties Act (PIPA) can be found in their entirety by clicking on their names.  Read them.  Read this breakdown of the laws by the American Library AssociationGo online and find the analyses from the major news organizations, read what your favorite authors and creators have to say about SOPA.

And than, as always, make up your own mind.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).