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First, a Glossary
Have you heard of the Protect IP Act about to be passed by the U.S. Senate? It’s all about preventing the publication of copyrighted material on the Internet, but its effects reach much further than that. The House of Representatives has similar legislation simmering with a version called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), also known as the E-Parasite Act.
Before I could get my head around any of this stuff, I had to know the full names of these bills. I found out the names are all acronyms, because, after all, nobody loves a good acronym more than an American legislator. Here’s a glossary to bring you up to date:
- Protect IP: Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property, aka Senate Bill 968
- SOPA: Stop Online Piracy Act, aka HR 3261
- E-Parasite (now, this one I really thought referred to intellectual property thieves living off the work of others, kind of like parasites): Enforcing and Protecting American Rights Against Sites Intent on Theft and Exploitation. It’s the same thing as SOPA.
Our legislators want to protect us from
- ISDIAs, or Internet Sites Devoted to Infringing Activities
Because the DMCA isn’t enough, or so they say--
- DMCA: Digital Millenium Copyright Act
And legislators will not rest until they protect us, by targeting
- NDNs: Nondomestic Domain Names
- DNS: Domain Name Systems
- NDNSS: Nonauthoritative Domain Name System Servers
With all these abbreviations out of the way (ISDIAs? Really?), let’s move on to what these proposed laws mean for the Internet as we know it and whether these acts are a good thing.
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A Little History on Internet Copyright Infringement
In 1998, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act was passed to deal with a fledgling Internet, to protect copyrights owned by people whose work might be posted online and shared without their permission. It extended protections guaranteed by copyright laws that were enacted in the ‘70s. The laws covered all copyrightable original works of authorship, such as literary, musical, artistic, and processes not covered by trademark or patent law, and it included employers’ rights in the case of “work-for-hire” intellectual property.
And it worked pretty well. Anybody remember the Napster guy? How about that Limewire site? Yep, our laws took care of them.
Most people think of Internet piracy in terms of music, because songs plus their videos were the overwhelming bulk of files shared on those sites. There has never been much worry about someone claiming that War and Peace was his own original work because sites like Copyscape would quickly thwart plagiarism and give Tolstoy his due.
Now it seems that our legislators want to reach out and protect us against foreign websites that mimic genuine American sites and display copyrighted works. The law also mentions preventing the ability of such fraudsters to circumvent technical safeguards against copying materials and even offering counterfeit products to innocent consumers who think they are buying something that’s worth more than it is.
To be honest, the legislation initially grabbed me as something that we really needed. After all, I’d had a couple of my own pieces (not even my best pieces) reproduced somewhere else on the Internet without my name attached to them, and it made me pretty angry. But, now that we’ve become accustomed to the amazing power of the Internet and everything it can bring us, most people act pretty responsibly, teaching their kids about right and wrong. Pirating songs and even movies just isn’t fair to the people who created those works of art. The government, however, in its predictable tradition of over-reaction, is going about this problem all wrong.
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A Wake-Up Call
Have you read the scope and depth of the proposed legislation? I found a summary of the Protect IP Act, and it says the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will go after any owners of nondomestic sites, or the sites themselves if the owners cannot be identified, that “engage in or facilitate copyright infringement” or enable access to copyrighted works in any way.
Their targets include the NDNs, the NDNSS’s, DNS's (places like Go Daddy), financial transaction providers (FTPs—think PayPal), Internet advertising services (IAS—wouldn’t that include Amazon’s affiliates program?) and providers of “information location tools”—Google, anyone? Actually, that includes any website with a search bar. Oh, my!
Whenever and wherever our trusty DHS agents happen to spot this ruin and abuse, they will require all search engine companies, FTPs, DNS’s, and even your Granny to shut down their entire websites if even one NDN possibly infringes copyrighted material. If the value of the copyrighted material infringed exceeds $1,000, the website owner will be slapped with a felony.
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But Wait a Minute...
Doesn’t a government agency sifting through all websites and arbitrarily shutting down those it deems as noncompliant seem just a little bit like censorship? Plus, the law leaves room for neither human judgment nor error. If your son or daughter uploads a video onto YouTube, and in the background of the video there is identifiable copyrighted music playing, that innocent home-made video would violate the law.
To curtail the communication of the many just for the purpose of routing out a few who violate the Internet means suffocation of creativity, social media and other communication, digital marketing, information access, and so much more. It means that our world will shrink, and people will fear posting anything because of the risk of censorship.
YouTube will be closed as we know it. So much information is posted on that site, for such a wide variety of purposes, that it is practically impossible for YouTube to police everything on its own. Certainly YouTube would have no problem taking down clips that violated the law if the persons violated contacted YouTube and pointed them out.
But that’s not how it’s working out right now. According to Greg Sandoval on CNet News, Google, which owns YouTube, is pitched in battle against Viacom, a media conglomerate owning MTV, Paramount and Comedy Central, plus more.
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Cherchez Le Money
It seems that Viacom sued Google and YouTube in 2007 for over 100,000 instances of violation in the form of posted video clips. The Court found that only about 70 were in violation and ordered YouTube to take them down.
But the battle went on. In 2008, according to Miguel Helft in The New York Times, Viacom asked the Court to have YouTube hand over its user data; Google was permitted to remove users’ identifying information before complying. In 2010, the Court found Google was not in violation, protected by the DMCA. But Viacom has appealed the ruling, and in October 2011, Viacom’s attorney—getting back to Sandoval’s story—accused that Google and YouTube had full knowledge of pirated clips being posted, but kept mum in order to reap the profits. Google’s representative maintained that the onus falls on the owner of copyrighted material to bring its status to a site owner’s attention.
If Viacom wins, and for any case where the DHS suspects copyright abuse on the part of a website, shutting such sites down is tantamount to judging them guilty until proven innocent. According to Larry Downes on CNet News, this puts major power in the hands of the media conglomerates and severely curtails digital communication expansion.
It’s not that I want to leave plagiarist websites open—foreign or domestic—but the law requires any site associated with them to be shut down also. What will happen to the free flow of information that has changed our world? Can an entire website be closed because it inadvertently listed the URL of an NDN?
The law does permit owners in violation to be notified. Why can’t website owners just delete offending URLs? After all, the NDNs that seek to profit from copyright infringement are the very ones that will find ways around the legislation; only compliant sites will suffer. As we penalize our foreign partners’ websites by shutting them down, so will they prevent our websites from being viewed in their countries.
Well, I learned years ago to follow the money. Who originated this bill, and who is just as happy as clams that it’s about to be passed? That would be the entertainment industry—owners of recording companies, movie studios and their ilk.
There is even a report that extolls the virtues of the copyright business, claiming it employs 11 million Americans and boasts a significant standing among profitable industries, surpassed only by the sales of chemicals (excluding pharmaceuticals). This report was paid for by the entertainment industry, however. And, by the way, our already strapped government wants to spend another $47 million on this witch hunt.
I can remember as a kid going to the neighborhood Bijou. In those days we saw two movies for the price of one. During intermission, the theater played a vigorous short about fighting Pay TV! How could we let the TV cable industry take over our television sets and force us to pay? Never mind that we only had four channels to watch; we couldn’t imagine any alternative. There was a donation box, we were informed, where we could drop in our hard-earned change on the way out of the theater in order to fight these monsters. And of course, when VCRs came on the market, the entertainment industry pronounced them the very wickedest thievery in all of electronics.
And now it’s this!
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What's Happening Next
Several legislators have written to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid objecting to the Protect IP Bill as it's written. They recognize its potential to "undermine the security of the Internet" and discourage "innovation, creativity, and jobs creation." It's clear that while there may be some value in the legislation, it certainly surpasses the authority of the government vis-à-vis our First Amendment rights.
I’d love to hear what you think of it. Just scroll down below the places where I've given people proper credit (because here at Bright Hub we do respect people's creative rights!) and drop me a note in the Comments section below.
- Downes, Larry. SOPA: Hollywood’s Latest Effort to Turn Back Time, CNet, 11/1/11 http://news.cnet.com/8301-13578_3-20128239-38/sopa-hollywoods-latest-effort-to-turn-back-time/?tag=mncol;subStories
- Helft, Miguel. Google Told to Turn Over User Data of YouTube, The New York Times, 7/4/2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/04/technology/04youtube.html
- Siwek, Stephen. Copyright Industries in the U.S. Economy. Prepared for the International Inellectual Property Alliance, 2011 http://www.iipa.com/pdf/2011CopyrightIndustriesReport.PDF
- Acronym illustration by the writer
- sxc.hu, pepo, royalty-free license
- From website of U.S. Senate
- Wikimedia Commons, HernandoJoseAJ, Creative Commons license
- sxc.hu, mokra, royalty-free license
- Sandoval, Greg. Viacom Gets Another Shot in Court Against YouTube, CNet News, 10/18/2011, http://news.cnet.com/8301-31001_3-20122032-261/viacom-gets-another-shot-in-court-against-youtube/
- Protect IP Act http://www.grassley.senate.gov/about/upload/Judiciary-05-12-11-PROTECT-IP-Act-2.pdf