There is a legal battle going on right now in the US legislature, that will attempt to control the fate of the Internet. On one side are the proponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act, who are dead set on legislating stringent online restrictions that will supposedly stop online piracy. On the other side there is the business sector and the public who are working to keep their Internet free from censorship. The final outcome precariously hangs on a balance.
The Protect IP Act: Legalized Bullying
Many large companies, mainly from the entertainment industry, are making a really big fuss about Intellectual Property (IP) infringement. Granted, there are clear-cut violations of IP rights occurring online (and otherwise) as there always have been, even before the rise of the Internet. But as the debates heat up, the proposed measures to ‘protect’ IP have been progressively bizarre and excessive. These companies currently already have the power to take down specific content and sue companies that facilitate file sharing. Yet, still unsatisfied with their assault on the corporate perpetrators, they use the same legal penalties written for large-scale commercial piracy as an excuse to go after families and individuals who quite innocently use their content in everyday activities.
Enter the Protect IP Act, a law that is mutating into one humongous bully machine, giving the IP owners sweeping powers to censor virtually the entire internet domain. Although the expressed aim of this act is to prevent piracy, upon closer scrutiny, the actual expected impact on piracy will be minimal at best. The impact however, on free speech, social media and on online businesses is potentially disastrous.
The Internet is Everybody’s Business
You might say that this is a US law, and I’m not in the US so why even bother? Well as mentioned in the video, the very fact that, if this law is passed, these huge copyright owning companies will have the power to go after search engines, social media, hosting companies and pretty much all Internet users within reach in the US. Since a great chunk of the world’s users pass the US networks in one form or another, this means virtually no one can operate on the internet without their approval.
The people outside the US who can’t be reached directly, can still be censored by blocking their access to the US networks and cutting off their advertising revenue. The law doesn’t even require that the offence be repeated or persistent, it only requires a single instance, for penalties to apply. Furthermore, the conveniently vague wordings of the Act allow for creative interpretation which can be tweaked to suit whatever purpose the IP owners fancy. This eerily sounds like the ‘witch hunt’ of the Inquisition.
Ultimately, the Protect IP Act is not going to be about stopping piracy, although that is the press release. Piracy has been made the excuse to bully the entire internet public into paying the giant corporations more money simply because they feel they are entitled to it. The Protect IP Act is the linchpin that guarantees them that revenue. Or so they wished.
The trouble is, they are operating under the mistaken notion that by bearing down on the Internet and all the activities therein they can actually recover ‘lost’ revenues. If passed, the bill is supposed to allow them to achieve this through one of two things: one, that IP owners can either get people to pay additional monies for the all the otherwise ‘illegal’ use of their products or two, sue someone, anyone for the revenues lost from the ‘illegal’ use of their products and claim damages. That they even believe that this law can actually protect their revenues is grossly absurd. These IP owners might succeed in getting some people to pay. They might claim some damages from inadvertent conduits of piracy and maybe even shut some of them down. But then what next? People are going to magically reform and start paying them more willingly and pirates will stop pirating? You think?
The Outrageous Use and Abuse of the Copyright Law
It’s one thing to go after piracy and it’s another thing to demand payment for singing among friends or posting personal video. This is just an example of how far this kind of bullying has gone.
“In 1996, ASCAP decided that that since hotels, restaurants, funeral homes and resorts pay for the right to “perform” recorded music, and since many summer camps resemble resorts, why shouldn’t they [campers] pay too? Under copyright law, a public performance occurs “where a substantial number of persons outside of a normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered.” Like a summer camp.
After reportedly opening its negotiations with the American Camping Association with an offer of $1,200 per season per camp, ASCAP eventually settled on an average annual fee of $257. But once ASCAP‘s plan went public, and people learned that the Girl Scouts were among the 288 camps being dunned, the group beat a hasty and embarrassed retreat.” (source: http://www.brandnamebullies.com/excerpts)
If the Girl Scouts had not been among these groups, this tactic might have gone unnoticed. But really this is not just about shaking down the Girl Scouts for a little more money so they will be allowed to do something they have done freely for years. It’s not even about piracy. It’s about tracking us all down, and about making us all pay more money so we can enjoy their work. What the ASCAP fails to recognize is that all their member’s creations will be worthless without a following. This sort of mercenary zeal can turn an audience cold and seeking other less cumbersome creations to patronize. How long do they think they can they keep this up?
To cite an even more absurd quarrel over copyright, the book Brand Name Bullies recounts this incident:
“A controversy over the sounds of silence began in 2002 when avant-garde composer Michael Batt performed “One Minute’s Silence,” which was exactly that. In the program notes for the performance, Batt decided to pay tribute to experimentalist composer John Cage, who in 1952 had pioneered a similar performance piece called ” 4’33”,” which was precisely four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. Batt also put “One Minute’s Silence” on his album, Classical Graffiti, performed by The Planets….
In the program notes for Batt’s performance, he listed the composers of “One Minute’s Silence” as “Batt/Cage.” He gave a credit to Cage “just for a laugh,” he later told the Independent of London. This attribution was sufficient, in the eyes of the Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society, the British agency that collects royalties for music performances, to demand payment. MCPS sent Batt its standard license form, seeking a royalty on behalf of Cage’s estate.” (source: http://www.brandnamebullies.com/excerpts)
Well folks, the dirty little secret is out. It really is all about the money and how it can best be pried out of unwilling hands by the so-called defenders of intellectual property. Because, can it really be about preventing online threats to economic creativity and theft of intellectual property? What self-respecting artist would go through all this extent just to earn more money from his own creations? The loss in goodwill, will severely jeopardize any future revenue. In the end, how much of all this money wrangled in the process, really goes to compensating the artists? And how much creativity does it encourage if at all? Seriously!
What Can We Do?
As a separate individual entity we might be powerless to change anything. However as part of a global community, we do have the power to uphold whatever we value as members of that same communities. We need to start standing as 1. There are countless things we can do to create the changes we seek. Here are some of my suggestions:
- Speak Up. For people in the US, you can write your congressmen to express your opposition to this law. Flood your legislators with messages that clearly make your stand against Protect IP, loud and clear. For the rest of the world speak out on your walls, blogs and tweets that you are against this bill. There is power in numbers, if everyone speaks up, we will be heard. Protect our freedom of speech. Protect the freedom of the internet, (Demand Progress’ ‘Stop Censorship’ petition offers a sign up and be counted among those opposing this act.)
- Take action. Identify publicly the entities that have shown a propensity for this sort of bullying/ extortion, then totally withdraw all support for any of their products. Stay away from all their ‘intellectual property’. Don’t sing, play, watch, listen, dance or in any way interact with it. Don’t talk about it. Don’t write about it. Don’t even think about it. Let’s just leave them alone. It’s really not worth going to jail for. When people are made to pay more than a product’s true value, they start shopping around for a better deal. We should do the same. There are many providers who; value your patronage and opinion, who would take the time to establish a direct and authentic relationships with their public. Let us instead, support the those who are true members of our community.
- Build stronger communities. Strong communities have high trust, commitment and collaboration which consequently leads to high contribution. In strong communities, people dialogue openly, share resources and collaborate to serve the common good. Hostility and paranoia happen when there is no community to bind people together. Transactions between entities that have no social ties can easily turn suspicious and litigious; where each party views the other as an adversary and one can only win if the other loses. Oppressive measures like the Protect IP Act can only appear necessary and justified to an entity detached from the community it wants to control, as it renders only its own rights superior and all other’s motives suspect. The added advantage of strong communities is its ability to collectively protect against attempts to undermine established community dynamics.
- Support the Community. There are tons of awesome artists, inventors, developers, scientists and people in all sorts of occupations who will share their brilliance for the sake of their communities. We all need to do the same. Since we all stand to benefit collectively from the bounty of our community, we must make our own contributions to the community in whatever capacity we can. The Japanese people have their priorities straight. That’s why they can recover from economic recessions and natural disasters with remarkable ease. Communities work best when everyone in it takes to heart his own responsibility as a member. Sharing, respect and consideration for others are values that forge strong communities.
Let’s keep our internet free. Speak up and let them hear us loud and clear. Whether this bill passes or not, we will still always have the power to change things. If they make it so cumbersome and costly for us to use their “property”, then we’ll just have to find a more suitable alternative. If the current system allows a minority to withhold resources from being used for the common good, then we will just have to change the system. The only thing that is required for us to pull this off, is that we all stand together. We need to stop being the 99% and start being the solid One.
In an Alternate Universe things are Different, Wonderfully Different
In the more enlightened parts of our world, there are industries that have become quite comfortable with the concept of sharing. They have not just accepted it, they have actually embraced it as a philosophy. In a curious turn of events, these industries that openly ‘reuse’ each other’s designs manage to rapidly advance aesthetically and technologically. And the commercial bustle that follow in their wake lead them to advance economically as well.
A very clear trend tends to show that when designs are allowed to flow and mingle freely, innovation flourishes. The sheer volume of permutations that are unleashed on the market allows a rapid filtering of robust design features that get refined and integrated seamlessly into increasingly superior products. The availability of information on both the design successes and failures provide a huge knowledge base that designers can all draw from when developing their next designs.
This is the genius of ‘open source’. When players willingly surrender their knowledge into a knowledge pool that any player can access, all players are endowed with a much higher intelligence than if they had to go it alone. And since virtually no resources are spent on protecting or attempting to protect ‘intellectual property’, all resources can be effectively channelled into perfecting design. Securing permissions, paying for licensing fees and battling in courts for ownership rights slow down progress and drive up development costs. The proponents of open source simply decided to do away with all that. The philosophy is simple: take what you need and give back what you can; in one word: “Share”. Companies like Google, Facebook and the entire fashion industry live by this code and they have become richer for it.
Significantly lowered cost allow providers to make their product available at low costs or even free with limited features and/ or at the testing stage. This creates an enormous amount of goodwill. Users are more willing to forgive product flaws and give feedback about problems. Users also provide other users with reviews and recommendations that boost a product’s market share gratis.
Open source is an extremely potent development and economic strategy that not only translates into breakthrough designs but also into significantly larger revenues as well. This can only happen in an uncensored free Internet. In her Ted Talk, ‘Lessons from Fashion’s Free Culture”, Johanna Blakely points out the blatant disparity between the gross sales of low IP industries (Food, Automobiles and Fashion) against the high IP industries (Films, Books and Music). The software industry which was not included in her chart (below) made roughly *US$ 285 Billion for the same year, even exceeding that of the fashion industry.
The ‘abundance’ that results from the sharing ethic, multiplies on many different levels. Design sharing attracts a bigger pool of designers that in turn expand the design the options in the market. All market segmentation have access to versions of the product that best addresses their need and price point pushing the market boundaries wider. The huge user base offer an extensive feedback source that provide clear direction towards the most viable industry trends and emerging markets. Users are also the source of varying levels and streams of revenue. The sharing paradigm encourages the highest possible engagement from its public. Trust and goodwill are the one of the most important by-product of sharing. And this is why they succeed, radically.
Watch Johanna Blakely’s Ted Talk: Lessons from Fashion’s Free Culture in the video below. (16:07 mins.)
Ironically, the Protect IP Act which purportedly seeks “to prevent online threats to economic creativity and theft of intellectual property“, may in fact be stifling economic creativity, if not killing it, while seriously antagonizing the community that the IP owners expect to earn their revenues from. The proposed choke-hold restrictions on the Internet could actually snuff out the very social media activities that creates the buzz for the IP protected products. On top of all that, it is still extremely doubtful that any of these measures could even mildly inhibit piracy.
Let’ keep out internet free. Do your part. Everyone should get involved because the internet is our business.