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Tuesday, 24 January 2012

SOPA, PIPA and ACTA





So moving on from yesterday’s brief mention about the (misplaced) furore over Apple’s supposed copyright grab through iAuthor/ iBooks 2, it would be remiss not to mention the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect I.P. Act (PIPA), the two internet copyright bills currently passing through the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. There is also the slightly less publicised ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, that is being negotiated by the US, Canada, the EU, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Jordan, Morocco, and the UAE. The titles of each act seem to say everything they need to on the tin: ‘Piracy is bad, we’re here to stop it!’ But if these bills are passed (or any similar bills are passed in the future), there is a very real chance that the ramifications will fundamentally affect the functionality of very key elements of the internet all around the world. Not only that, the suggested punishment for breaching the terms of each act, even unintentionally or benignly, are severe.

It is important for me to state here my position on the bills. Online piracy is out of control, particularly for the music, TV and movie industries; if these industries cannot make money, then new content cannot be funded in the future, it’s as simple as that. What I do object to, as many people around the world do, is the approach that these bills are taking, as any mention of or link to a site that features illegally obtained copyright material can be deemed piracy by association and can be punished accordingly.

This TED video explains things very eloquently:






As alluded to in the TED video, lurking rather ominously in the background of these bills is the overbearing power of the US entertainment industry. The conspiracy theorists are lapping it all up, of course – it’s all very cloak and dagger, with the financial muscle of the entertainment industries twisting the arms of politicians around the world. See this article on the supposed reasons why Kim ‘Dotcom’ Schultz was arrested in New Zealand yesterday, as a classic example of the theories flying around the place: https://plus.google.com/u/0/111314089359991626869/posts/HQJxDRiwAWq#111314089359991626869/posts/HQJxDRiwAWq.

It’s all wonderfully Orwellian but SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and the clamp down on online file sharing should be considered with measured rationale (piracy is, after all, illegal and we all know that). Having said that, there is also a nagging sense that the gargantuan US media conglomerates are perhaps beginning to tug on the webs that they have weaved through various global political systems over the years, meaning that the balance of the acts that are being proposed are being skewed in their favour.

Now, I completely understand that as copyright holders, media organisations want to protect their creations and the finance that has been invested into them at a whole range of levels, but the measures put forward to prevent file sharing of any sort – and the prevention of someone even posting directions to a file that has been uploaded on another site (such as posting a link on Facebook or Twitter) – are draconian in the extreme.

As a publisher of original creative output, copyright theft is a major concern to us; but I do not condone the threats carried by SOPA, PIPA and ACTA. True, we are not in a business that bears the same financial risk as the movie, TV or music industries, and our products are not so quickly and easily digestible – and therefore transmittable – as a movie clip posted on YouTube, but it is still a very real problem for us. Our tactic (and here I am talking about the book industry as a whole, particularly when dealing with digital editions) is to look to price our products at as reasonable a level as is financially viable for us (we need to cover our costs, pay authors and staff, and make money to commission or procure new material), but the thinking is that if a book isn’t priced too high (i.e. is clearly good value for money) then people are, on the whole, happy to purchase it through legal channels. If, however, we wanted to charge £35 for an electronic version of a bestselling £9.99 paperback, then we would expect to see piracy go through the roof. Yes, there is a reliance in this model on people’s general decency and good will, but so far it is a reliance that has been well placed. We still keep a close eye out for free illegal versions of our books on the internet and if we find them we issue take-downs – but we would never dream of punishing the people who downloaded them, tweeted about them or circulated a post on Facebook to their friends about where they found their free copy. We have no wish to be Big Brother.

The internet has given global society an unparalleled freedom of expression and access to information that would otherwise be totally out of reach. SOPA, PIPA and ACTA threaten to destroy this whole infrastructure. They, and any subsequent efforts to police the internet so severely, should be challenged at every step to ensure that a middle way is found. Piracy needs to be stopped, or at least curtailed as much as possible, but the method for doing so needs to be approached in a more reasoned and objective way than the current proposals that are being circulated.
What are your thoughts?

Speak soon.

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