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Wednesday, May 15, 2013
A couple weeks ago, members of the Southwest Virginia Songwriters Association drew attention online for literally singing the praises of Rep. Bob Goodlatte for his work to prevent online piracy. Shortly afterward, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the congressman called for a comprehensive review of the current copyright system in order to adapt it to the “digital age.” Given the incredibly vehement opposition engendered by the last proposal Goodlatte sponsored, the Stop Online Piracy Act, it is worth taking a moment, before beginning a new debate, to consider the modern Internet environment and why SOPA failed.
I grew up in the musical community of the Roanoke Valley, so I can certainly understand the songwriters association’s desire to protect their creations. But the reality is that measures like SOPA will not achieve that goal. In fact, SOPA’s effect would be almost the exact opposite of its intended impact.
SOPA was designed as an attempt to stop illegal downloads of copyrighted material from websites hosted in other countries. However, it went far beyond this goal, setting up regulations that would severely limit peer-to-peer websites, social media and other staples of the online world. Feeling that these essential parts of the Internet were threatened by SOPA, the online community united to fight its first joint enemy. From blogs and chat rooms to established websites like Google and Wikipedia, public opinion revolted against regulation and solidified free media as a rallying cry for online culture.
This is the main point that most legislators do not understand. Free media is not just a convenience that certain people online take advantage of because they don’t wish to pay to access it. It is a fundamental part of online culture, and its prevalence is only growing. Almost anything you can possibly imagine is available for free online, and the collections of free media are only growing. This cultural phenomenon is far too widespread for us ever to go back to the philosophy of copyright enforcement established before the Internet.
Let me be clear, though, I am not suggesting that artists and musicians should not be compensated for their creations. Far from it. Creativity and ingenuity must be encouraged and rewarded if they are to thrive. But the manner of copyright enforcement and the way we think about copyright must be adapted to acknowledge the changes in the world created by the Internet.
Free content paid for by advertisements. A regulated peer-to-peer sharing website. Easy ways to determine what is a legal download and what isn’t. These are the types of things that could ensure artists receive their due without the massive effort it would take to reverse the entrenched cultural trend of free media.
Another reason to consider alternative ways of enforcing copyright laws is the difficulty of prosecuting every infraction. It would be simply impossible to identify and accuse every 13-year-old who downloaded her new favorite song, or every eager fan who streamed the latest episode of “Downton Abbey” before it officially aired in the U.S.
The vast virtual mob that is the Internet will not accept attacks on its culture. Even more than a year after the SOPA debacle, the web is still full of declarations, usually in the form of funny memes or videos, that people stand against online censorship and regulation. Copyright laws will never again work the way they did before the arrival of the Internet, and the sooner legislators understand this, the sooner they can take meaningful action that might actually help artists. So please, if Goodlatte really wants to start a new debate about revising copyright laws, he should try something different this time.
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