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Tuesday, 17 January 2012

SOPA/PIPA blackout: here's what Google should do on blackout day, Jan 18

My proposed Google Doodle to celebrate blackout day
What should Google do tomorrow for the January 18th SOPA/PIPA blackout? Maybe their front page should look like this, with a doodle to celebrate Wikipedia joining Reddit, Cheezburger and a host of other websites (including this blog and the Open Digital website) to protest legislation that fundamentally shifts the liability of websites hosting user generated content in a way I feel will severely damage the internet as we know it.

SOPA and PIPA attempt to protect relatively small revenues from old media industries at the expense of innovative and disruptive media businesses emerging across the internet.

The legislation embodies a dangerous level of over-reach disproportional to the problem it attempts to address, and to top it all off the media companies pressing for the legislation are also the gatekeepers for traditional TV news and own mainstream newspapers, putting them in a position to control public debate around these vitally important issues.

I don't have a problem with copyright as a concept, it is an important market intervention offering protection to those who invest in the creative arts.

But let's get three things straight: first and foremost, copyright law as we know it today is broken. It is not fit for the digital age.

It offers disproportionately long protection terms (life of the author plus 70 years), and it kills innovation.  It kills innovation because most advances build on existing works, yet current copyright laws allow almost absolute protection against remixing original works to create new ones, plus they allow the charging of obscenely high royalties designed to kill-off any distribution model the rights-holders don't particularly like.

Copyright has been subverted from its original intention to protect creative works and is being used to facilitate a monopoly in the distribution of facts.  This isn't conspiracy, the story is borne out in a few court cases such as NLA v Meltwater and the Premier League's attempt to clamp down on anyone daring to publish a list of football fixtures.

Copyright and all its supporting treaties never intended it to protect a list of facts.

Trying to keep all things in perspective I suggest copyright should be scaled back to its original 28 years protection or less, bringing it more-or-less in line with patent protection (20 years).

Copyright needs more fixes, see here.

Secondly, copyright is not and never was an intervention designed primarily to protect authors, artists, writers and other creators.  It was designed to protect those who invest in creation, whether that be building early printing presses or financing blockbuster movies, so please spare me the think of the poor artists, musicians, writers, etc... lines.

And thirdly, copyright litigation requires a great deal of money to pursue, so it fails to protect the very artists, musicians, small business website owners and software developers - broadly speaking all those who self-publish - who rely on copyright to protect fledgling ideas against the dinosaurs of the old media age.

Why is a blackout needed? Because the old media rights holders also control the mainstream TV news channels and popular newspapers.  Ordinary Americans will have heard very little about SOPA/PIPA until now, and Wikipedia's action alone will help spread the word in a way the owners of TV news outlets and newspapers desperately want to avoid.

Should Google, Facebook and Twitter be urged to join the blackout? No, I think it's entirely reasonable for such services to keep their doors open, especially when they run what amounts to core/platform services of the internet.  It seems entirely appropriate for Wikipedia to blackout and Google/Facebook/Twitter to keep running so that people can learn more about the bills and why they're so bad.

But I do hope Google, Twitter and Facebook take some action, since all three businesses rely on user generated content and are very likely to be affected by these bills.

Protest by the internet industry is entirely appropriate because SOPA and PIPA are bills designed to regulate the internet, yet were drafted without consulting those who run the internet.  The internet is not a plaything of governments, it is simultaneously a complex industry and a resource of the people, for the people.

In no other complex industry, such as automotive manufacturing, pharmaceutical research, banking, etc would a government be so arrogant as to force regulation affecting the entire industry on the industry without extensive consultation with the industry.

SOPA and PIPA were dreamed up by an analogue-era industry to adversely impact a largely unrelated digital industry and are fatally flawed.  No tweaks can fix these damaging bills. The rights industry already has the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which is more than sufficient to assert their rights.

Both SOPA and PIPA must be thrown out and governments around the world should start looking at the problem afresh with a long term process to carefully investigate concerns of both the old media and digital industries.

A solution to the perceived problem of piracy, if indeed it is a problem at all, will include a wholesale rewriting of copyright to make the market intervention work in the digital era, and must be developed through extensive consultation with all stakeholders: the internet industry, internet users and the content industries.

Rushing flawed legislation which attempts to use the sledgehammer of the state to further criminalise a broad spectrum of online behaviour offensive to just one relatively small industry will solve nothing.

@JamesFirth

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