Copyright, SOPA, Why You Should Care

So yesterday was “American Censorship Day”.  This was to… commemorate really REALLY is not the right word, maybe acknowledge or point out that yesterday Congress had a hearing about SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act”.  There are plenty of sites out there talking about this better than I probably can explain but the general gist of the bill is that it would give the movie and music industry, the MPAA and the RIAA, the ability to have a website blocked by DNS servers if it contains infringing or protected copyrighted works.

Now, this is all feel good and great on paper.  If it passes we can block sites like the PirateBay or MegaUpload which are often used to distribute infringing materials.  But then, people often use Bittorrent to download infringing materials, it should probably get clocked too.  Then you have folks uploading TV shows and clips to Youtube, it should probably be blocked too, besides, that gives the secondary benefit of removing all of those entertaining cat videos people seem to prefer to watch instead of crappy sitcoms.  There is also that Facebook thing, where people like to post those videos, which infringe on IP, let’s block it too.

Granted, this is the whole “worst case scenario” mindset and I really doubt Facebook would be blocked.

At least not initially.

Before we get too off track, let’s point out that many people use ThePirateBay and MegaUpload and similar sites to distribute legitimate content.  Even if that’s pushing it, Bittorrent is definitely used for legitimate content.  Download bandwidth is relatively cheap but upload bandwidth is not.  Being able to distribute the file hosting system across hundreds and thousands of hosts with Bittorrent is excellent technology.

Back to the “major players” of Google (with Youtube) and Facebook, yeah, it is probably unlikely they would get blocked.  However, there is a greed mindset that comes in with unchecked power where Youtube could easily be a candidate to be blocked.  As I mentioned, people are increasingly growing interested in independently produced media, be it heavily produced independent films, video bloggers in their bedrooms and offices or even just some guy who filmed his cat for 8 hours and cut together a 30 second string of the best moments.

The movement towards disintermediated user generated content away from the big business models of expensive shows and movies and music is the true “enemy” of the music and record industry.  It’s just not real Politically Correct for the big bad media industry to blame the obvious because there isn’t anything they can really do about it in the end.  The internet revolution for lack of a better term is quickly killing the middleman economy of the past.  I’m not going to get too far off on this tangent though because it would make this even longer than it already is and it’s a topic I’d like to touch on in a separate post.

The point is… the big media giants can use SOPA to essentially close Youtube preventing a lot of independents from even getting exposure in the first place.  The desired and expected outcome would be that everyone comes crawling back to buying albums at $17 each that have 2 almost decent songs on them so they can make money hand over fist ripping off their customers like they did up until 10 years or so ago.

I should point out that I’m using Youtube pretty generically here as it’s interchangeable with pretty much any website centered around user generated content.

Now you might ask, “why would they shut down Youtube, why not just shut down the infringing channel/person?”  This is an excellent point, why can’t they do that?  Doesn’t shutting down a whole website seem a little extreme?  Here’s the punch line for ya, they ALREADY HAVE THIS ABILITY.  It’s called the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act”.  Under the DMCA, if someone starts posting a bunch of episodes of Glee to Youtube, Fox can issue a DMCA takedown notice to Youtube and have those videos removed.  Simple, easy, somewhat effective.  The problem of course is that there is more Youtube content uploaded every minute (maybe it’s second) than there are hours in the day.  Policing all of the content for infringing videos is essentially impossible.  Youtube already has several systems scanners and algorithms in place that scan new uploads as they arrive but they aren’t 100% effective.

They can’t be.  People are clever.  They’ll slow the music down slightly so it doesn’t get caught.  They’ll flip the video of a scene so it doesn’t match.

Which brings up another point.  SOPA will do nothing to stop Internet piracy.  People will find a way if they want to pirate copyrighted materials.  DNS can be blocked but people will just start using the IP address of the websites being blocked.  People will use TOR Networks, people will use proxies that are out of the country (like they do in China which firewalls itself out of the rest of the world).  People will find a way.  PC games started getting ridiculous with their DRM yet there is always a crack available, often before the game is released.  Music on iTunes and other MP3 stores used to have DRM preventing unauthorized play and people figured out how to use the “analogue hole” or just burned them to CD then re-ripped them.  People will find a way.

The people who suffer from all of this tend to be the honest folks.  The guy who didn’t realize he could only authorize iTunes on 5 computers or devices or whatever and now he’s got a new machine and can’t play his songs.  Or the person who wants to play their new PC game on their laptop without having to carry the CD around but the game requires the CD for authorization.  Or worse, the game requires an internet connection to be played at all, which BTW, there are still many people WITHOUT regular internet access who still like to use PCs and play games and use software.

To stop what?  Pirates?  They downloaded an ISO that included a hacked EXE that breaks the encryption or DRM or need for the disc a week before the game was in stores.

The other side of this bill which is quite sinister is the lack of due process involved.  DMCA takedowns are bad enough as they don’t always require proof.  They also get issued against websites which use copyright materials under the Fair Use clause.  Fair use most often involves a copyrighted work being less than a certain length and used for parody or criticism purposes.  Like if a person has a music blog where they review songs, under fair use (I think, I’m not a lawyer) they would be allowed to embed 30 second clips of the tracks into the review.  This takes down entire websites without any due process and barely requires any actual proof of infringement.  Essentially if they say “take it down”, it goes.

The really terrible angle here, as they say, power corrupts and this bill gives too much power to people that don’t deserve it, is, for example, that hypothetical music review blog I mentioned.  Let’s say they are fairly harsh and don’t give too many positive reviews.  We can’t have this negativity floating around getting readers now, negative reviews affect our bottom line.  So the site gets a SOPA notice and disappears.

Criticism out of site, out of mind.