SOPA, PIPA and Agreeing with Rupert Murdoch
Earlier today (23/1/2012) infamous and recently discredited media tycoon Rupert Murdoch tweeted the following tweet:
Mr Murdoch, clearly peeved at the negative attention his corporation has received following allegations of questionable journalistic practices, presumably wanted to highlight the hypocrisy of condemning phone hacking while excusing widespread copyright infringement. This of course relates to the recent furore surrounding the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) that caused considerable online debate, leading Wikipedia and several other prominent websites to block access to their content in protest of the proposed bills. These protests and the surrounding debate recently led to both bills being shelved, much to the delight of the online masses. “Hooray”, you may be thinking, “internet censorship is dead! Long live the internet!”, etc etc.
The debate, though, is far from over. SOPA and PIPA’s proponents, which include the Motion Picture Association of America (a fairly powerful bunch), will undoubtedly be back at some point with another bill, or reform, or ban, or case, or prosecution, or something that will help them protect their intellectual property interests. SOPA and PIPA are only one chapter in the long and evolving history of law in the internet age.
So what’s my point? Well, contrary to popular opinion, I did not fundamentally disagree with these bills, and neither do I disagree with Rupert Murdoch’s tweeted opinion above. Now, don’t jump to conclusions just yet. I do not like Rupert Murdoch. Everything I’ve seen of him points to a power-hungry, outdated media tycoon with very questionable morals who I really don’t think I’d get along with if I met him in a pub. However, just because I find him fairly intrinsically evil doesn’t mean he’s always wrong. His point about ignorant argument could be a valid one. I happen to think it is.
Just to illustrate that I’m not totally full of hot air, I’ll point out now that I am a law student, I have studied UK intellectual property law and I’ve been following intellectual property issues in the news for a while. SOPA, PIPA and the demise of Megaupload are just the latest developments in a looong history of copyright issues around the world. Remember Napster? Remember PirateBay? Remember when iTunes discontinued its protected downloads and introduced DRM Free content, largely because it knew that otherwise customers would just buy music from other online providers? And that’s in the context of legal downloads, with people actually paying for what they consume! From what I gather about the normal habits of digital content consumers, most of you don’t pay for what you take. Yes, I did say “you”. I do pay for what I download. I am not a fan of hypocrisy. But please understand that this is not me having a go about illegal downloads from some ridiculous moral high ground stance. I don’t particularly care how the music that’s on your iPod got there. But when the habits of internet users become so widespread and so commonplace that the masses will gang up on a pair of bills that were predominantly designed to protect the interests of authors, musicians and film makers, I can’t help but feel that something is going wrong here.
That was the point of SOPA and PIPA after all. They were, initially, intended to protect intellectual property rights. They were not intended to censor the internet. I am pleased that they are no longer being pursued though. In my opinion, and the opinion of many people who know a lot more about this stuff than I do (including some of those who proposed the bill in the first place), SOPA and PIPA went too far, asked too much, and encroached too many liberties of regular internet users. But in the wake of these bills I still think that something is needed to bridge the void between internet censorship and internet anarchy – where nothing is paid for and that’s the norm, stifling creative contributions because of a lack of legitimate resources making their way to those who actually produce the things we want to download.
Yes, I know that a lot of the money stays with the publishing companies and never makes it to the authors. Yes, I’m aware that most musicians earn a pittance when they’re starting out. Yes, I realise that unless you sign up with a fairly big-time film studio and agree to license your soul to them you’re unlikely to get anywhere fast. But that isn’t always the case. There are plenty of grassroots movements, plenty of ventures designed to get new creative works out there for people to enjoy. If it was you that was trying to make it in the creative industry how would you feel about people demanding the right to take all of what you create without paying for it?
That’s why file-sharing is illegal, and why I think that it is morally wrong when it infringes copyright. Laws aren’t just there to piss consumers off. They’re there for a reason, and in the case of copyright laws they’re there to protect the rights of the people who created the copyright works that you want access to. SOPA and PIPA going down is a Good Thing, but it wasn’t internet users, as the proverbial David, going up against the Goliath that is the “industry” and winning. It’s much more complicated that than. This was the consumers’ personal (and I think selfish) interests going against the legal and moral rights of all those people who are trying to get somewhere by doing something that they love. Not everybody’s Beyoncé, JK Rowling or Steven Spielberg and can afford to have a few of their works pillaged. Most people need you to pay for their stuff, otherwise they have to stop making it.
I’m painfully aware that a lot of people I know will disagree with what I’ve said, or will think I’m having a go at them personally, or just that I’m being a dick because I think I know what I’m talking about. None of this is my intention. All I’m doing here is stating my opinion of what’s going on in the copyright world in light of the facts available to me. I welcome dissenting opinions. If you think file-sharing is brilliant then please say so, as long as you can back it up with some solid reasoning.
But if you’re thinking of commenting on this post because it’s made you angry, and all you would be doing would be telling me to mind my own business in various, less euphemistic turns of phrase, then please don’t bother. That’s not a conversation either of us are going to enjoy, be it in a comments page or over a pint. I’d rather leave you to it and go outside to the smoking area to hang with Rupert Murdoch.