Friday, November 18, 2011

SOPA? Nope-a

About five minutes after the invention of the Internet, people started to use it to find ways around buying things they used to pay for. As magazines and newspapers rushed to make use of the new technology, their subscribers stopped getting their print subscriptions, or never started them in the first place. Since most of their revenue comes through advertisers, they were able to adjust well enough to view a continued online presence as a sound business strategy and a complement to their print versions.

The music and movie industries, however, were subject to more outright theft. They found themselves locked in a battle with fans, especially as the economy worsened and a $10 movie ticket represented a larger expenditure to people. They used PSAs to try to equate illegal downloading with stealing cars. They targeted a few downloaders in well-publicized cases, slapping 22-year-olds with five and six figure fines for their crimes. ANd now, they're trying to flat-out make it illegal.

Currently before Congress is the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. One clever linguistic trick politicians employ is to name a bill or law after something most people would approve of. The Clean Air Act, the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind -- how could you not vote for those things? You're telling me you like dirty air, hate America, and want to see kids left in the dust? So when a bill or a law has an upbeat sound to it, be very suspicious.

Suspicion is warranted in this case. The proposed law, in its current form, would do away with the so-called "safe haven" law that prevented sites with a lot of user-genreated content from being liable for the actions of every single user. It's what allowed Craigslist to escape liability in a lawsuit on housing discrimination, and kept it from being shut down in the wake of the prostitution scandals. It's why the Chinese resellers don't take out all of Etsy. It's why this blog can continue to exist, even if the guy at the "next blog" button's entire blog consists of movies he filmed off the theater screen using his iPhone.

Even if you're not on the creation side of Internet content, (and actually, most of us are: if you sell on Ebay, have an Etsy store, sell your old furniture on Craigslist, upload photos to Flickr or have a YouTube channel for your toddler's antics, this applies to you) this bill has another creepy feature for you. According to this great explanation at, this bill would require a sort of Internet wiretapping to make the blocks on these pirate websites work. Your internet providers would be forced to see where it is you're going online in order to keep you from getting there if there's a block on it.

The law also doesn't lay out a framework for how something comes to be blocked. This could be very, very bad. If you are of Regretsy, you will know that most people have an imperfect understanding of what copyright infringement is. The copyright laws are so ridiculously obtuse that in graduate school, I was advised as a curator to not even attempt to understand them myself, and call a lawyer whenever things weren't clear to me. But to quote "The Princess Bride," in general, it does not mean what you think it means. It's not infringing on your copyright to re-post a photo of your work that you yourself placed online, as long as you are credited. It's not infringement to link to someone else's site without their permission. It's all right to photograph anything that's not placed where the owner or creator has a reasonable expectation of privacy, so if I were to photograph everything in one of those booths at the Allentown Art Festival that hangs a homemade sign warning passerby that their beaded jewelry is intellectual property and you can't photograph it, the cops would side with me. Shit, I could even re-post the photos here!

But like I said, a lot of people don't realize that. Combine that with the abolishment of safe haven, and you've essentially got the end of user-generated sites on the Internet. Think of Etsy, for example. There are hundreds of thousands of listings at any given time. If one person is accused of violating copyright and reported for it, if I'm understanding this bill correctly, the entire site would be shut down, all transactions suspended, and they'd actively look through your online activity to do it.

This is not the way to protect the film and music industries. If you agree, tell your representatives. Visit and to let them know.

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