The Internet is arguably one of the most open and democratic systems on the planet. Art and ideas can be accessed and shared by anyone, with very few limitations, especially in the U.S One big exception is piracy, the sharing of copyrighted material. Since Napster made headlines in 2000, the music industry has aggressively tried to prevent the peer-to-peer sharing of music. Mainly this effort has focused on prosecuting individual users who download illegal material, but that could all change pending legislation in the U.S. House.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would make the online streaming of copyrighted content a felony. But what’s most alarming is that it would give the Department of Justice (DOJ) major authority to censor the Internet.
Currently, when an individual posts or downloads content online, it is the individual who is prosecuted. SOPA would allow the DOJ to suspend the entire website on which the content is posted. Essentially, any site or advertiser that interacts, often unknowingly, with pirated content is liable. It’s a complicated piece of legislation, and this video will do a much better job of explaining the consequences than I can:
The consequences for free speech could be enormous, as this piece in The Atlantic points out. It’s not too difficult to imagine cases where the DOJ is censoring content they find subversive under the guise of piracy, especially because piracy need only be alleged for a site to be taken down. The U.S. has strong copyright laws compared to many European countries. Intellectual property is protected as vigorously as physical property. But is this necessary? Are declining CD and digital music sales really the result of piracy?
In Switzerland, one in three people download unauthorized music, movies or games; that’s a much higher rate than what exists in the U.S. But before making peer-to-peer sharing illegal, the Swiss government began an investigation last year to determine if file sharing actually hurts the profits of content creators and copyright owners.
What did they find? No link. In fact, downloading for personal use often increases sales. It makes people more aware of new artists, games and movies. Downloaders don’t spend less money on content. The downloading is complimentary, not supplementary. As a result, the Swiss government decided to keep downloading for personal use completely legal. So why have CD and digital music sales declined? An analysis by researchers at the Harvard Business School also concluded that piracy is not the culprit, but instead, a weak economy and rising CD prices are to blame.
I don’t anticipate the U.S. to change any copyright laws, but I do think these findings need to be considered before Congress passes SOPA and threatens the Internet’s open platform for free speech.
By: Mike Guisinger
(Photo by Luke Dorny under a Creative Commons license)