SOPA, PIPA, and Music

Recent debates over a pair of proposed Hollywood backed antipiracy bills have highlighted the public’s concern in allowing government control over major parts of the web. Many experts believe as well that the proposed laws would create unnecessary complications.

The House bill is SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act”, and the Senate bill is PIPA, the “Protect IP Act”. The fear is that the bills would effectively establish a censorship regime and set a bad precedent, stifling innovation and investment on the Internet. Public outrage resulted in an  “Internet Blackout Day” on January 18, the largest online protest ever recorded. Though the bills have been shelved for being too broadly written, their concerns  were legitimate and the debate is still brewing.

The Trade Organizations

Both bills affect musicians directly, so there has been much debate about them.  Those in support of SOPA and PIPA include many major media companies that are committed to the creation of copyrighted content, including the RIAA, MPAA, major music publishers, NBC, and Viacom to name a few.  Sandra Aistars, Executive Director of the Copyright Alliance, spoke in a recent interview of her support for the bills.  She says, “I represent thousands of artists across the United States who depend on the Internet to network, market, fund raise, connect with fans, to distribute their work, and basically to make a living.  Their ability to do so is being compromised by rogue websites offshore distributing counterfeit goods and copyrighted goods for a profit with no return to the creators.”

Aistars’ s view is also a grass-root position. A2IM, a trade organization of independent musicians and labels run by Rich Bengloff, is also in support SOPA and PIPA:  “Our members are small and medium sized independent businesses that invest in the creation of music and whose very existence is being threatened by the availability of illegal content online.”  It might surprise to hear that there is an alignment between musicians and their trade organizations with some of the major media companies. But small companies that deal with indie talent have just as much to lose as the majors. They too need all the revenue they can to get from delivering intellectual property to consumers.

The Technology Companies

While the concern for piracy is legitimate, the flip side of the coin is the question of whether  or not regulating piracy should be in the hands of the government.  The feeling is that the bills seem to be aimed at an honorable cause, but have underlying implications that could be ominous.  Among the critics is co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales.  “The bills”, he says,  “are very clearly about censorship; the Senate version of the bill has provisions to implement DNS blocking of oversees websites, and provisions to prevent someone like Google from linking to sites like the Pirate Bay-…[it] is outrageous and just not acceptable under the First Amendment.”

The divide between technology companies and entertainment companies is growing. SOPA supporters see technology companies as enablers of piracy.  But under the current drafts of the bills, the government would have the ability to shut down a site for suspicion of copyright without a trial, hearing, or any other constraint.  This instills fear into businesses with online investments, including venture capitalists.  The arm of the law would void search engine results, stop the delivery of ads, and intrude on payment services for sites under investigation.

General Business Considerations

Moreover, under the House version of the bill, private companies would be able to sue Internet service providers if they found that they were hosting content that infringed on their copyrights.  This provision goes beyond the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, removing the ability for sites to act on good faith and take down infringing content upon notification.

With the music business becoming driven more and more by “do-it-yourself” minded companies and artists, online business restrictions like these could stifle creativity and innovation. Technology companies are also small tech startups, and many new music companies fall into this category. In addition, music is part of a cultural heritage that is best shared and disseminated, not privatized or shackled with excess regulations. Finally, new artists need to be exposed, an interest that is in conflict with that of established songwriters and performers that depend on copyrights for their livelihood. Those same artists, however, may become known and aspire later to the terms of the SOPA and PIPA bills. Such divergent interests need to be carefully considered in the next iteration of the legislation.

By Ben Scudder





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