Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Welcome to the Commercial Age

Several controversial bills have been making the rounds in U.S. legislative circles lately, one of which, H.R. 3261 Stop Online Piracy Act, otherwise known as the "SOPA bill", stands to cause the most impact on our every day lives.

We've seen the anti-piracy campaign since our childhood.  It's an old tune.  Piracy is the same as stealing, and stealing is wrong and illegal.  On the surface, it's a pretty simple concept, and one that's easy to get behind.  It's also a concept that strikes close to home with me.  I'm an author, and as such, I stand to be affected by the piracy of my own work.  I've invested some time and effort into studying the topic, and if you're an author, I suggest you do the same.  It's in your best interests.

While the anti-piracy stance seems on the surface to be a no-brainer - full of justice, integrity, and the maintenance of good law and order, it's not so simple.  Of course, nothing ever is.  There are two sides to this, and the flip side is as compelling, or more so, once you dig a little deeper into the topic.

Piracy is a Crime, © Stephen Dann

If piracy is stealing, why would anti-piracy laws not be necessarily a good thing?  How could one condone such illegal behavior with good conscience?  How could one advocate against something that supports the laws of the land, especially laws that ensure the creator of something gets a fair share of the profits gained from its sale?  Because most people don't really even understand the issue.

Part of the problem is understanding Digital Rights Management, or DRM, and what it prevents and causes, and more importantly, what it doesn't.  DRM was created with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to fight copyright infringement online and help the copyright holder maintain artistic control and keep earning money from their work.  At least that's how it's supposed to work.

The virtual world has created problems we're often unfamiliar with because of what it is and how it works.  When I was young and I wanted to buy music, a movie, or a book, I'd go to the store, part with my hard-earned money and return with a physical copy of what I wanted.  It was mine, and I was free from that point on to do with it what I wished.  I'd given the author his cut of the profits by purchasing the item.  From there, if I wanted to read it, give it to my sister to read, and then legally sell it to a friend for whatever he wanted to pay for it, I could.  The book was mine because I'd purchased it.  It didn't matter how many times it was sold, traded or given away after the initial purchase.

Complications arise in the virtual world when we purchase a book because it isn't physical, and therefore needs a place to reside.  Further complications arise when we understand that moving anything digital isn't moving it at all.  It's copying it.  Even if we destroy the original, we've still copied it to move it.  And that's where DRM becomes an issue.  To a computer, there is no difference between copying a file from an old computer to a new one, retaining possession of the work, and duplicating it to another person's computer for their use.  DRM attempts to curb the illegal distribution of virtual works, but at the expense of taking away rights the owner would have if it were a physical copy.  Furthermore, the point can be made that publishers are actually encouraging piracy with their anti-piracy efforts.

This discussion gets even more interesting when we learn that many authors are against DRM, because in clamping down on the illegal distribution of their work, it limits accessibility and arguably doesn't stop people from stealing it anyway.  And several authors have pointed out that encouraging people to pirate their works has boosted sales, not stifled them.  After all, obscurity, not piracy is an author's worst enemy.

So how does this relate to the SOPA laws the government is trying to pass now?  Well, the two are loosely affiliated, guided by the same goal, and that goal is commercialism.  The entertainment industry, including commercial television, motion picture, music, and cable and satellite distribution entities, has spent a collective $2.5 million dollars so far lobbying congress to pass this bill.  And it's all in the name of controlling content, and as a result, money from that content.

Already we're seeing the effects of a bill not yet even passed into law.  Courts are already imposing online crackdowns, much like what we'll see happening with this bill.  Because of the bill's general and ambiguous wording, entire websites can be shut down virtually at will, and indeed the popular, user-driven content site Reddit has already warned this bill would likely be the end of the site.  And if Reddit, a site owned by a parent company with a good deal of resources to deal with SOPA-generated claims, fears it won't survive, smaller sites don't have a chance.

It's been said SOPA will kill the Internet, or at least kill the Internet as we know it.  Many people are echoing this sentiment; it's not a knee-jerk reaction by a few on the lunatic fringe.  Many are voicing concerns against it, loudly and repeatedly.  It's a legitimate concern.  Unfortunately, corporations, driven by profit motives, and not wanting to adapt old fashioned business models, are throwing money at this bill hand over fist.  And because congress still seems to have the intellect of a five-year-old regarding such newfangled technology such as teh interwebz, they're going to take money and run, passing this bill along the way.

I'm scared of this bill.  I blog here, and share virtual content in part to build my online presence and let people know about my writing.  It's how many authors and artists battle the obscurity that threatens to stifle the sales and promotion of their books.  Most just want a voice.  We want our books out there for people to read.  It's not about the money, but we know the originators deserve compensation for their work.  I know if this blog disappeared, it would be a lot of extra work and time lost, and it would cost much more to get back to even where I am now.  I try diligently to use only work that's labeled for reuse, and I always credit the originator to my best ability.  But it would only take getting it wrong only once to make all this disappear, and that's scary.

In spite of huge advances in user-driven content everywhere you look, society is driven more and more by commercialism.  Big business is behind almost everything, and is going strong no matter how loudly folks like OWS scream about it, or how quickly anti-corporate sentiment trends on Twitter.  Big business is good.  It provides a lot for society - a lot we don't often even see.  But in some cases, it's driven by goals that ultimately work against it's own long-term good.  "Make the money now and get out" is the mantra repeated by those in charge.  And they repeat that because what's good in the long run for business often is contrary to their own short-term good.

Some, like those behind the "DeSopa" Firefox add-on, are already hard at work to combat the effects of SOPA, which is a good thing.  Technology is largely misunderstood because it's always changing.  It's always a step ahead of you, even when you're the one creating it.  It will survive, even against such draconian measures as the SOPA.  In the meantime, hunker down against the inevitable, watch the Internet crumble around your ears, and then stand by as those short-sighted enough to enact the bill struggle to reverse their self-destructive decisions.

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