Coming into 2012, the Internet community was looking down the barrel of very dangerous legislation that would have created legal structures to silence legitimate speech in the name of curbing online “piracy.” A House bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and its Senate counterpart, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), had been debated, amended, and looked to be on the fast track for legislative approval.
That all changed on January 18. An historic “Blackout Day” protest, loosely coordinated by a coalition of public interest groups, startups, tech companies, and thousands of different websites, resulted in millions of emails and tens of thousands of calls to legislators. As sites across the web turned out their virtual lights at once, an important but otherwise arcane copyright bill became front-page news—and impossible for the content lobby and their favorite legislators to sneak past the public.
There were plenty of reasons to be concerned. After all, Congress has passed 15 laws aimed at stopping “piracy” over the last 30 years—an impressive record given the general absence of actual facts about the problem or the effectiveness of the proposed solutions. And even after an earlier protest, held in November 2011, resulted in nearly 90,000 calls to Congress in one day, SOPA’s author (and Judiciary Committee chair) Lamar Smith seemed intent on pushing the bill through, dismissing the complaints as not being “legitimate.”
But support for the bills began to crumble when met with the magnitude of the blackout protests. Over the course of January 18, people sent nearly a million emails to their legislators through the EFF’s action center alone, and many million more through other sites. Some of the most popular sites on the Internet, like Google, Reddit, and Wikipedia, were among over 100,000 pages dark in protest.
It worked. Angry supporters of the bill may have derided the grassroots action—MPAA chief Chris Dodd called it “dangerous” and a “gimmick,” while RIAA CEO Cary Sherman said it was based on “misinformation” and, strangely, a “misuse of power”—but legislators got the message, and began jumping ship from SOPA and PIPA almost immediately. Within a month, the bills were effectively dead.
The defeat of SOPA and PIPA marked an important victory in an ongoing struggle for copyright policy that’s based on actual facts and real evidence. The January 18 protests, too, served as a template for a new era of online activism. In 2012, we’ve already seen similar battles play out all over the world; in 2013, we’re sure to see even more.
- U.S. Congress may not have stomach for another SOPA/PIPA fight (pcworld.com)
- Looking forward: The fight for Internet freedom (rappler.com)
Stopping the Campaign of Misinformation: New Study Affirms Less Copyright Restrictions Benefit the Economy
A new study from Australia presents the latest evidence that loosening copyright restrictions not only enables free speech, but can improve an economy as well. The study, published by the Australian Digital Alliance, indicated that if Australia expanded copyright exceptions like fair use, along with strengthening safe harbor provisions, the country could potentially add an extra $600 million to their economy.
In addition, the report details how vital copyright exceptions are to the Australian economy as a whole. As ADA’s executive officer and copyright advisor Ellen Broad told EFF, “Australia’s sectors relying on copyright exceptions currently contribute 14% of our GDP, around $182 billion and they’re growing rapidly. It’s essential that Australia’s copyright policy framework adequately support innovation and growth of these sectors in the digital environment.”
Given how much Australia’s burdensome and confusing copyright law has held up innovation, EFF is encouraged by the fact that copyright reform is being considered and debated in the public sphere.
But more broadly, this is just the latest evidence disproving a major talking point used by the MPAA and RIAA anytime copyright laws come up for a vote: that tough copyright laws are good for the economy. During the SOPA debate, organizations such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) claimed over and over again that the restrictive laws are needed to save and create jobs. Yet the Australian study confirms similar research done by CIAA in the US, showing how important fair use exceptions are to the economy. In fact, fair use accounted “for more than $4.5 trillion in annual revenue” in the US and exceeding the economic benefits of copyright laws themselves.
Unfortunately, this new evidence probably won’t stop the MPAA and RIAA from continuing to peddle misinformation about the economics of copyright law in Australia, the US, or elsewhere. Currently, the MPAA is distributing materials to members of the US Congress—perhaps in another attempt to gin up support for SOPA 2.0—extolling how important new, restrictive laws will allegedly help them create jobs.
But these new talking points are short on statistics—perhaps for a reason. MPAA and RIAA have used drastically exaggerated numbers and discredited studies for years to claim that laws like SOPA and PIPA—or agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership—are vital for the economy. In reality, SOPA would’ve cost many more jobs than it saved, given it would have weakened or eliminated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) safe harbors that have allowed Internet companies like Google and Facebook to thrive for the last decade. That’s why when a survey was taken of venture capitalists, they “overwhelmingly” indicated they would stop investing in tech companies—the one of the economy’s fastest growing sectors—if SOPA were to pass.
Since the economic numbers don’t add up, advocates for draconian copyright laws have resorted to other misleading arguments. For example, this week, a Fox News editorial erroneously argued that intellectual property protection is a “forgotten” constitutional right and “it is the obligation” of Congress to pass laws like SOPA to protect rightsholders. Of course, the problem with SOPA was that it was written so broadly it would’ve ended up censoring millions of Americans who never even thought about copyright, but that’s beside the point. The US Constitution does mention intellectual property but not in the context of an individual right or mandate to Congress. Specifically, it says:
Congress shall have power . . . To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.
A plain reading of the clause indicates that Congress has the authority to use copyright law to promote creativity—if they so choose. There’s no mandate for Congress to pass any copyright law that comes their way, and there’s no clause guaranteeing the rights of movie studios and record labels to maximize their profits. Meanwhile, creativity—far from being stifled without more copyright laws on the books—is currently thriving. There’s been a marked increase in the amount of movies, music, and books produced over the last decade, as this comprehensive study done by CCIA and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick shows.
So while huge legacy corporations may find it harder to keep a grip on their market share, it’s not because people have stopped creating and selling art. It’s quite the opposite: they’re creating more by incorporating fair use, cutting out the middlemen, and bringing their art directly to their fans through the Internet.
Unfortunately, all too often copyright maximalists, like the author in the Fox News editorials, put forth the idea that “lawlessness” prevails on the Internet, even though in the US and abroad there are many copyright laws already on the books. In the US alone, Congress has passed fifteen separate laws in the last thirty years alone strengthening the powers of rightsholders.
Most notably, the US DMCA gives power to copyright holders to force websites to take down any of their protected material. In fact, the DMCA gives disproportionate power to the rightsholders, often leading to abuse, and in turn, censoring material that is clearly protected free speech. As Techdirt noted, in Australia, their outdated and burdensome copyright system “is ill-equipped to cope with key Internet activities like search and indexing, caching and hosting, since they all involve incidental copying.”
Both countries would be better served by evidence-based policy that promoted the intended balance of copyright. After decades of unbalanced legislation, the evidence is clear, and points to relaxing copyright restrictions, not strengthening them.
Even after millions rallied against the passage of SOPA/PIPA, the House is still quietly trying to pass a related bill that would give the entertainment industry more permanent, government-funded spokespeople. The Intellectual Property, Competition, and the Internet Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee recently held a hearing on Lamar Smith’s IP Attaché Act (PDF), a bill that increases intellectual property policing around the world. The Act would create an Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property, as well as broaden the use of IP attachés in particular U.S. embassies. (The attachés were notably present in Sec. 205 of SOPA—which was also introduced by Smith.)
The major issue with this bill—and all similar bills—is that the commissioning of people in the executive branch who are solely dedicated to “intellectual property enforcement” caters to Big Content. The IP attachés are charged with “reducing intellectual property infringement” and “advancing intellectual property rights” around the world, but not to critically engage IP complexities and limitations. From our perspective, this bill is nothing more than the government giving Hollywood traveling foot soldiers.
The presence of people with such a narrow cause as “intellectual property enforcement” fosters a single perspective in the federal government. In an environment where the deep-pocketed copyright lobby is pushing through favorable legislation on both a domestic and international level, this is the last thing we need. As Techdirt and Public Knowledge rightly state: trying to squeeze bits of SOPA past the people—the same people who rejected the bill earlier this year—is an awful idea.
- SOPA Critics Cry Foul Over IP Attache bill (techdailydose.nationaljournal.com)
- SOPA Lives! New Bill Seeks to Resurrect Expansion of IP Enforcement Powers (readwriteweb.com)
- SOPA architect now pushing for “IP Attaché” legislation (arstechnica.com)
- Lamar Smith Looking To Sneak Through SOPA In Bits & Pieces, Starting With Expanding Hollywood’s Global Police Force (informationliberation.com)