This week you’ll have likely come across two new acronyms: SOPA (Stop Internet Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act). They are new powers being discussed in the US congress which will give content owners the power to shut down any website that is facilitating or involved in piracy online at any level.
There’s no doubt that piracy is a massive problem, and if left unchecked, is likely to get worse. Major TV companies and record companies are lobbying the US government tackle the problem. They’re demanding that the US government gives them the ability to shut down sites that are involved in this complex and illicit crime. The major problem with SOPA isn’t what it’s set out to try and do, but the way it’s been implemented.
The end of a free internet?
Traditionally, the web has been the one place where censorship doesn’t get a look in. That ethos changing goes against the Internet’s fundamental principles. This week many of the world’s most-loved websites went dark in protest to the bills, which would have the power to censor the Internet. For many opponents the Internet can’t be policed, and shouldn’t be policed, in such a scatter-gun approach. There’s no doubt that Wikipedia, who went dark for 24 hours, are in no way supporting piracy – but are fearful of what might happen once a country takes it upon themselves to be the world’s police online. If SOPA passes, all an IP owner would need to do is send a letter to his company of choice in the US — be it Google, PayPal, the ISP, even Visa or MasterCard — and have it claim a “good faith belief” that the target site in question has infringing content on it. The recipient of said “belief” would have just five days to either comply with the order, or challenge it in court.
Who’s making money out of piracy?
Interestingly despite lack of any working legislation Megaupload was shutdown by the FBI for wide scale piracy today – which leads us to ask the question: do we even need SOPA & PIPA? Well, sites like Megaupload have always stated that they are not involved in piracy and do not condone its users uploading copyrighted material. But, according to the FBI they know full well what their services are being used for. The FBI has stated that their business model is a simple one: the more their users upload files to be shared for free, the more money they make, by selling unlimited downloads for their service.
The main problem with Megaupload is that the money they’re making from the service never filters down the labels, studios or content creators. Sites like the Pirate Bay are the same. Although, they never shared content for the purpose of making money, they do it because the believe that everything in the public domain should be shared freely without any recourse. Megaupload, on the otherhand, have taken this model one step further: they’ve monetised it. Profiteering of illegal downloads to such a degree that they are making colossal amounts of money, money that should be going to content creators.
What’s wrong with our current laws?
At the moment piracy is so widespread and happening in so many countries’ that the current laws only allows for content owners to go after the downloader, and not the facilitator. If Universal Studios or the MPAA tried to sue everyone who has watched a downloaded TV show or film this would obviously be incredibly impractical and the legal bills would be astronomical. It has worked, and people have been prosecuted, but it will never solve the problem.
Essentially, both the SOPA (Stop Internet Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) will allow content owners to go after the sites that are profiteering from the downloading of illegal files. This, at the moment, would mean many of the world’s leading filesharing locker sites would be in the firing line. Sites like Mediafire and Megaupload (which got shutdown today) would almost certainly be shutdown or blocked, even if many of its users are using the sites in a legal way. It has always been argued by these websites that it would be impossible to know the exact origin of all files and content on its servers, so they essentially work from a position of ignorance. With SOPA and PIPA they would no longer be able to say: “Well, we just didn’t know”. The main issue many have taken with SOPA and PIPA is the collateral damage these new powers would create. How would it effect small internet startups? Many opponents aren’t in favour of piracy, but, want a free and open internet – something SOPA & PIPA would threaten. If you happened to mention an infringing link, video, or torrent on a site or service you happen to use, the said service would be legally obliged to remove it. Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Tumblr, YouTube, you name it — everywhere on the web that has feet in the US would be at risk of some form of internet censorship.
Will SOPA & PIPA solve piracy?
It’s doesn’t take a genius to recognise that no amount of legislation will solve piracy, for many internet savy people a new pragmatic approach is needed. If technology start-up companies like Spotify or Netflix can wean illegal downloaders off sites like Megaupload & Pirate Bay, and into legitimate channels of distribution then eventually illegal downloading would be significantly reduced overtime. It’s clear that throughout the world consumers feel that they aren’t getting value for money, or, in many cases, aren’t able to get the content they want, at a time they want, for a fair price. And if no one will give them this, the choice is a simple one: get it for free.
What other approaches could work?
Services like Spotify & Netflix have proved so popular that it’s clear that many people are willing to pay for content, but at a price and model they’re happy with. Quite often when you buy a CD only a fraction of the money actually goes to the artist. If the royalty system was overhauled and labels and studios were more open to new ways of delivering content and sharing the spoils – then we wouldn’t be in the state we’re in at the moment.
The archaic way some content providers are run means they’ve been playing catch-up with a digital revolution, and instead of embracing it, they’re still fighting it. The two sides will have to focus on creating a proper and fair process by which criminal websites are appropriately policed, while ensuring adequate protection for those who are wrongly or unfairly accused.
Intellectual property has always been a bit of a minefield online – to think that you can shut down a site down and solve piracy is looking at the problem through rose-tinted glasses. As soon as one is shut, ten will reappear, that is until the demand is diverted to legal channels. This legislation will simply push piracy even further underground. SOPA has been halted, at least temporarily, following opposition from the White House, while PIPA is still under consideration by the US Senate.
One thing for sure is this won’t be the last time you have heard of SOPA, PIPA or online piracy.