Old school Washington just got a lesson new school democracy.
The outcry over the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act and the January 18th internet blackouts lead by Wikipedia was the information age equivalent of the shoot-out at the OK Corral. This time Wyatt Earp was armed with a computer and millions of social media followers all firing cyber bullets at will. The McLaury Brothers in congress never stood a chance. SOPA and its companion Senate bill PIPA have been sent to a Boot Hill grave site. Don’t expect daisies to pop up anytime soon.
Social democracy won. But perhaps just as important is what lost—intellectual property.
The arguments on both sides were focused and compelling. Among the most articulate voices against SOPA is a brilliant Twin Cities internet and social media entrepreneur, Tyler Olson of SMCpros.
“SOPA fundamentally changes the internet,” Olson argues.
What frightens Olson and thousands of savvy internet consultants and entrepreneurs like him is that SOPA would have allowed the U.S. Justice Department to shut down internet sites that unbeknown to them contained or linked to copyrighted and protected material, be it movies, music, books, software, or other creative content.
“When the government, companies, individuals can request that anything be taken down it becomes an issue of freedom of speech, it becomes an issue of the Great Firewall of China which will now be potentially in the U.S.,” said Olson. “And those are the things that go against the democracy of America.”
Olson’s views have sympathetic support from at least one prominent media law expert. University of Minnesota Law Professor Jane Kirtley says SOPA goes after a critically important issue in an unfocused way.
“It’s using a sledge-hammer where a stiletto would be more appropriate,” said Kirtley.
But lost in the outcry over censorship and First Amendment rights, were the rights of people to also protect the things they create. Steve Cole is a jazz musician and recording artist who’s most recent album Moonlight has topped the Billboard jazz charts. Cole is also chair of the music business department at the McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“Of the music that is distributed through various channels only five percent we’re able to monetize. So, if that doesn’t give you an idea of what a herculean problem internet piracy is I don’t know what would,” said Cole.
I’ve included extended video Fox 9 interviews of both Kirtley and Cole making their arguments.
The main target of the SOPA legislation was overseas websites that steal and distribute copyrighted material that have been untouchable to U.S. regulators.
“We’re trying to fix a system that is broken. We’re trying to protect ourselves against violators of our intellectual property and their distribution too, and we don’t have a mechanism for enforcing that for overseas violators and this legislation does give us that ability,” said Cole.
The SOPA legislation was largely backed by institutional content providers including the man who ultimately helps me may my mortgage. (Disclosure statement: no one in my organization has been told to support a particular point of view on SOPA) NewsCorp Chairman Rupert Murdoch has been an outspoken supporter of SOPA for the same reasons as Cole. As the owner of 20th Century Fox, Fox News Channel and the Wall Street Journal, Murdoch believes SOPA is needed to combat a growing culture where people believe everything on the internet is free—or should be.
But there’s also another take on the debate and it come from James Allworth and Maxwell Wessel in the Harvard Business Review. Their analysis is that the media giants are pushing SOPA to protect business models that are no longer nimble and innovative.
“SOPA is a legislative attempt by big companies with vested interests to protect their downside,” Allworth and Maxwell write.
Had SOPA passed congress, they argue it would likely cripple emerging digital businesses. “Start-ups will be less competitive in the United States and we’ll have effectively disabled one of the few remaining growth engines of the economy,” said Allworth and Maxwell.
Every voice raises a significant issue. In the end, creative content should and must be protected. Our younger generation of internet users has to understand that not everything is free for their taking, copying, and sharing unless the creators of that content say they can.
Which brings us back to the OK Corral. Wyatt Earp won the day, but there will someday likely be another shootout. Let’s hope congress, as Professor Kirtley suggests, comes to the corral with a scalpel instead of a sledge-hammer.