I’m not going to get into a detailed discussion of what SOPA/PIPA is and why it is a horribly written piece of legislation, developed by people who have no understanding of how the internet and computers actually work and supported by congressman who are little better than cheap whores of the entertainment industry. You could just type “sopa pipa” into google and find a lot of explanations (as well some good spanish soup recipes, yum). Or you could just follow this helpful graphical explanation.
But there is an aspect of this debate beyond the technical that intrigues me. Proponents of the bill who even admit to a lack of understanding of the implications still point out that if there is some collateral damage to the internet as a whole or significant hampering of our technical industries that is ok because we have to protect the media companies. But aren’t we over coddling them at this point as it is? The small handful of media conglomerates who own the majority of media companies (news, music, movies, etc) are already practically a protected class in politics, second maybe only to investment banking in the preferential treatment they are able to get from their pet Congressmen. They have had several poorly written (and heavily abused) laws written specifically to protect their outdated and approaching-obsolete business model (DMCA comes to mind) and they are able to treat local and federal law enforcement as their own private army (they are having a UK student extradited because he put up a website with LINKS to other websites where copyright infringement was taking place).
What is more head scratching, they have been able to bully congress into extending the copyright law effectively indefinitely, completely destroying its original purpose to allow content creators to financially gain from their creative works then allow the works to become public domain. The largest media company of them all (Disney) has effectively made the argument that it would be disastrous for their copyright on Mickey Mouse to enter the public domain and so every time the copyright comes up for expiration on that silly mouse, congress cashes their
bribes campaign donation checks and extends copyright law to prevent that from happening. In doing so we are actually destroying much of our creative heritage as many of the copyright owners of the music, movies, and books from that era have died and their works entered into a limbo where they cannot be copied or digitized owing to copyright law. They will instead eventually vanish forever as film, tape, and such degrade. Make no mistake, the movies, music, and books that our media conglomerates make all of their money from have value solely because the government says they do and gives the copyright holder a legal monopoly to distribute and sell these works. Without that government enforcement, the works would be free to copy and suddenly have no economic value. The extension of this government granted monopoly (that is now leading a legislative effort that would be disastrous for out tech sector) is tied to the age of a cartoon mouse. It is hard to take this seriously sometimes.
But copyright infringement (or piracy, if you feel the need to equate copying of media created since Walt Disney created Steamboat Willy with murder and theft of physical goods on the high seas) is a real concern from an economic sense. Hollywood and the music companies (MPAA and RIAA) will argue that our country’s economic interests are threatened by copyright infringement overseas and work very heavily behind the scenes to combat this. Normally the usual process is to pass a draconian law in one country, then work to establish a “treaty” with other countries to bring their copyright laws into parity. This is convenient because it allows for laws to be created while bypassing that complicated process of actually going through the legislative process. This time though they are launching a frontal assault, and they might have bought enough congressmen who care more about campaign dollars and promises of cushy jobs in the private sector than representing their constituents (spoiler alert: that is about all of them).
Even with it being a real economic concern, do we want to decimate the tech sector to protect a failing business model? The media industry has a long and distinguished history of fighting technology (even technology that turned out to be beneficial to them) like a horse and buggy trade group struggling to outlaw the automobile. Between a hyperbole filled campaign to attempt to outlaw the VCR in the 80s (“‘I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” President of the MPAA), and the endless onslaught against the internet for the last 20 years you would think Hollywood would be happy if the tech industry just vanished. Today Media Mogul/Illegal Wiretapper Rupert Murdock weighed in like a befuddled senile old man ranting against that magic voice box receiving AM stations and destroying vaudeville with this these gems. His ignorance of how any of this stuff works is amusing if he didn’t command so much influence.
At the end of the day, all things being equal if the government has to step in and decide who it will legislatively favor, I’m hoping it is the tech industry. America is and for a long time has been losing its place in the world. We cannot compete with third world manufacturing, we have deliberately sacrificed our spot as a scientific leader by diverting funds away from a physics supercollider (The Large Hadron Collider in Europe is where future breakthroughs will occur while we now watch on the sidelines), we have given up NASA and future space exploration will be spearheaded by China and India, and we are dumbing down our science, math, and literacy education while the rest of the world ups their game.
America, we basically have two things left, we are leaders in information technology, and leaders in making Lady Gaga CDs and Chipmunk movie sequels. Which do you believe is doing to be the best industry to foster a friendly environment for to maintain the relevance of America in the world? The media industry exists on the whim of the US government and other governments going along with our endless copyright extensions. Should they decide to stop, there is no value in what they create. Media can be copied for free, there is no scarcity of resources in the distribution, the basic rules of economics don’t work here.
I’m not suggesting that the whole concept of intellectual property is null and void. It has its failings and certainly the way copyright is being handled is despicable (I also feel software patents are insane and detrimental to the information technology industry). But I do know that if this is to be a showdown between two industries, I want the one to win that actually produces something of economic, societal, and tangible value. If Hollywood and the music industry are simply incompatible with technology, then I think we can do without the next Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, but I don’t think we can do without the next Google, Microsoft, or IBM. Do we want to be a country of technical leaders advancing civilization along, or do we want to be the court jesters, a diversion for the Chinese and other emerging technologies to get some cheap laughs from while they surpass us in all other areas?