SOPA, PIPA, and the Day Wikipedia Went Dark

Yesterday, January 18, was a day that history will view as the Fort Sumter moment of the  coming wars over intellectual property on the Internet. Or maybe not. As Buddhists like to say, we’ll see. What is certain is that Wikipedia and at least 18 other Web sites of the hip new-media variety shut down as a protest against two bills Congress is considering – the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA, the House version), and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA, its Senate sister.)

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.

Photo of backed out Wikipedia page.

Wikipedia blacked out its site and channeled Web surfers to their Congressmen.

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.

2 Responses to SOPA, PIPA, and the Day Wikipedia Went Dark

  1. Grrr. Okay, let me start a fight.

    Yes, SOPA/PIPA are monstrosities as currently drafted. What else would you expect from a Congress that couldn’t handle nuance or balance in public affairs if it landed on their head like a Russian space probe?

    On the other hand, the self righteousness and arrogance of the New Media crowd does become a little hard to bear at times. They are, after all, largely aggregators of information or “content” produced by others. Leaving aside outright piracy, we have an economic model where an outfit like Reddit can make money by collecting information it neither wrote, filmed, recorded, or created. They can post an article in seconds that, say, an Old Media newspaper spent weeks to report. This may be the way of the Internet, and Reddit probably has the First Amendment on its side, but spare us the mantle of virtuous “information wants to be free.”

    There are, indeed, rights here to be balanced … and the digerati are not exempted because they claim to “get it” and we don’t.

    • Well said, hacwriter. No fight from me. New media is in my DNA, as they say, but IPR idoes require a very delicate balancing. Best analogy I’ve seen in print is a from a blogger who likens SOPA to closing all the bridges and tunnels to Manhattan for the sake of shutting down an illegal DVD stand in the Bronx.

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