Solving SOPA

Monday January 23, 2012 – Stewart Wolpin

Wikipedia, Google, Reddit, Wired, et al, all have had their say about SOPA – the Stop Online Piracy Act, officially H.R.3261, and the Senate version, PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), officially S.968 with their Web blackouts and/or protests on January 18. In the wake of the blackouts and White House opposition, several former Congressional supporters on both sides of the aisle have now turned against the measures as well.

Now what?

Silicon Valley may rightly disapprove of SOSA and PIPA, but no one disputes the need for some measure(s) to stem the tide of illegal content flowing from foreign servers serving the less scrupulous amongst us.

Many, including CEA, urge support and passage of the shockingly bi-partisan Digital Trade (OPEN) Act, which purports to more surgically target rogue Web sites than the more blunt instruments wielded by SOPA or PIPA. It’s not known how the Web community will react to OPEN.

But it doesn’t matter if what seems to be the perfect piece of legislation is composed and passed. If history has taught us anything, it’s that it’s impossible for the law to keep pace with technology. Hollywood studios ended up breathing a sigh of relief when its ill-considered law suits against Sony and the VCR failed, and it took 60 years for lawmakers to update the Telecommunications Act of 1936, and even then the 1996 bill fell short of dealing with the implications of the then-new Internet, to cite two examples.

An Anti-Piracy Prescription

What is needed is not continued division between copyright holders, Silicon Valley and Congress, but cooperation to wage a hearts and minds campaign. After all, these foreign Websites wouldn’t be in business if folks in the U.S. didn’t use them. And apparently, consumers don’t conflate illegal downloading with walking into a store, shoving DVDs and CDs into their pants, and blithely walking out without paying.

For instance, Wednesday’s Web blackouts and the attendant media coverage have raised the public consciousness of the issue. Someone/anyone/everyone should continue this education process to educate consumers about legal and illegal behavior where uploading and downloading copyrighted content is concerned, to make it clear what kinds of behaviors by ordinary citizens are legal or not.

Someone/anyone/everyone should create some sort of a “not-watch list,” a directory of offending Web sites, technical methods – perhaps in parental controls – to restrict access to offending sites by children, and an FAQ on how to recognize illegal content and sites.

Search sites, ISPs, ad companies, financial institutions and Web sites themselves should publicize self-policing efforts and showcase successful efforts to keep sites legal.

Someone/anyone/everyone should initiate a social media campaign by anti-SOPA Web entities (Wikipedia, Google, et al) to equate illegal downloading with shoplifting, or otherwise socially demonize cyber content theft until the activity is considered akin at least to smoking.

Hollywood studios should stop acting – or at least appearing to act – so greedy. For one thing, studios should more quickly adopt UltraViolet, the industry effort to make it easier for consumers to enjoy content legally bought on a variety of devices and formats, regardless of how or where said content was originally purchased. (Or, something akin to it).

Finally, everyone needs to stop treating online piracy as a divisive advocacy issue. No one wins if the Web turns into a criminal paradise. A concerted social, economic and legal effort to combat online piracy would ultimately be more effective than a single piece of legislation, no matter how well-intentioned or written.