Proponents say these bills have a worthy goal – to rein in the Web sites, especially foreign Web sites, that routinely violate the valuable copyright of American creators of content and the companies that own this content. Three hundred fifty companies are on record as supporting this legislation, everybody from heavyweights you’d expect — NBC Universal, HarperCollins Publishers, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and the NFL — to Andrea Rugg Photography.
So why do Wikipedia and countless others from the Twitterverse object? The nub is that they see SOPA as a carelessly written bill that overreaches in several big ways and would have a powerful negative effect on the free flow of information on the Internet. One provision of the bill, for example, would require that U.S. sites take down links to foreign sites that violate U.S. intellectual property laws. You can imagine the chaos this would cause and the costs that would ensue if a site like Facebook or Twitter that is filled with user-generated content had to insure that no user ever posted such a link.
The objections to SOPA are many and detailed, then, and they get pretty legalistic pretty fast. For good summaries of specific objections, see these sites: the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, Reddit’s blog, mashable.com, and the Wikipedia entry on SOPA.
From the vantage point of one who once headed an office called Copyright and Print Publications, I see this as a face-off that was bound to happen. What is in play are two competing visions of how creative property should be handled in the digital universe and two business models of how to make money in that sphere. In the one corner, you have the big content producers a.k.a. old media – Hollywood, publishing, music, television – companies whose profits depend on principles of control, gate-keepers,and scarcity. In the other we have a phalanx of new media trend-setters – social networking sites, aggregator sites like the Huffington Post, hybrids like YouTube, search engines like Google. Their businesses depend on the principles of sharing abundance, user-generated content, easy information access, and ads in the margins. The most sacred principle of all for the New Mediaites is the link – simple, quick, and no cost.
I’m sure SOPA and PIPA in their present onerous versions will not become law since the Obama administration came out against the bills several days before the protest and the blackout itself drew much media attention to the issue. But if they did pass, I guarantee you the Supreme Court would soon be asked to rule on whether the Constitution includes a First Amendment right to link.
So the issue is fundamental and compromise on core principles will not be easy. I frequently scrolled down the Twitter stream under the #SOPA hash tag in the days before January 18, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen that crowd of new-media gurus as vehement and united on any issue as they were in opposition to these two bills. Oscar Hammerstein was an optimist in my book. The cowman and the farmer have trouble being friends for a very good reason – they both make their living on the same piece of turf.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Erik Martin, general manager at the social news site Reddit, described the proposed laws as “an existential threat to our company and the industry we work in.” He’s right.