Jan. 18, 2012 at 2:00 PM ET
SOPA – Maybe I’m for it after all.
I’m as adamant a supporter of Web free speech as you’ll find. And there’s a lot to dislike about the Stop Online Piracy Act. But when my stories about Web free speech are stolen and posted in their entirety by “rogue” websites, my head hurts. Stealing content is a funny way to prove your anti-SOPA credentials.
Opponents of controversial anti-piracy legislation called SOPA have been gaining momentum in the past week, and on Wednesday, their show of muscle reached orgasmic proportions. Perhaps swept up in the excitement of a protest that seems to be working, a long list of websites copied in its entirety a story I wrote about it over the weekend and placed it on their own sites. Here’s one example, viewed early Wednesday afternoon.
Sure, msnbc.com’s name appears there, but the Web site in question gets the clicks and the revenue. Not fair, I’m sure you’d agree.
For good fun, this “pirate” version seems to have been run through a translator, and back again. So my, “Opponents of controversial federal anti-piracy legislation known as SOPA seem to be picking up steam,” has been mangled into, “Opponents of argumentative sovereign anti-piracy legislation famous as SOPA seem to be picking adult steam.”
It’s the people who steal content and claim they are protected by free speech who are full of adult steam, otherwise known as hot air. I have no patience for Internet users who copy movies, music or software whole-hog, share it with their friends for free and then cry foul at efforts to stop this.
Of course, I haven’t been singled out for story theft. You can find rogue copies of almost every msnbc.com story – and any NYTimes.com, and any CNN.com story – all over the Internet. I’m not talking about “aggregated” versions, which are gently rewritten copies of someone else’s work, made famous by the Huffington Post. I mean total rip-offs.
I’m not in favor of SOPA. Blacklisting entire domains is a terrible idea that seems to have been beaten back by reason. Jailing alleged pirates would be Draconian in most cases. Using the U.S. Justice Department to enforce multinational corporations’ intellectual property rights through the criminal court system makes me queasy. Placing the burden of proof on small websites to show they aren’t violating copyrights is a dangerous turnabout of U.S. law. And perhaps most important, it’s highly doubtful that SOPA would be effective in stopping the kind of content theft I’m writing about here.
For a little more explanation on the reasons SOPA would have done more harm than good, I asked San Diego State University information systems teacher Robert Gillespie, about problems he sees with its enforcement mechanism.
"SOPA ... would leave a great deal of elbow room for interpretation, which is why so many corporations fear the ramifications of its passing," he said. "It can be implemented with far reaching effects. For example, if some media site republished a New York Times article without permission, not only can they go after the site in question, but they can make the search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing), any add networks, and various other connected business entities (such as ISP, domain, and website host providers) cease connection with the website in question...This is a bludgeoning tool that is imprecise and clumsy when in the wrong hands. "
So thank goodness, SOPA in its original form appears dead. But if you don’t think there’s a piracy problem, you’re not paying attention.
How bad is it? Even U.S. Senators steal content for their websites. (Though I am flattered, Sen. Bernie Sanders. I was proud of that story.) By the way, Sanders’ position on SOPA is unknown.
Photographers have been fighting this battle for years, and are doing a relatively good job of using watermarks and other technologies to enforce their rights. In fact, a cottage industry of photography IP lawyers has grown up around the problem, sending bills and other demand letters to photography infringers. (See a discussion of this in “When is sharing, stealing?”) Writers, so far, have gotten nowhere.
You could argue, of course, that imitation isn’t just flattery – it’s actually good business in the Digital Age. If enough people copy your stories, eventually that comes back to you in a social network-y, wisdom of crowds-y, long tail-y kind of way. Except in rare cases, I don’t buy that. The math just doesn’t add up.
The real problem is Web culture that suggests everything is free, or should be free. That’s just not a grown-up way of looking at the world.
So tonight, while you’re patting yourself on the back for being a part of a genuine Internet movement that has successfully influenced Congress – an impressive feat, mind you – know that there’s much more work to be done. Tell a friend they should link to a story instead of copy a story onto a blog. Because if we don’t find a reasonable way to protect intellectual property rights, you can bet an unreasonable one will rear its ugly head again soon.
Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and Comcast/NBC Universal. Microsoft publicly opposes SOPA in its current form, while Comcast/NBC Universal is listed as a supporter of SOPA on the House Judiciary Committee website.
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