Monday, January 23, 2012

Stop Online Piracy Act (explained)

You've probably seen all the hullabaloo last week about the US SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) with Wikipedia blacking itself out for a day along with other leading websites like Google and Wired. Like many you me be wondering what's the big deal. Downloading copyrighted material like movies and music albums is illegal and the artists deserve a fair return on their work so what could be wrong with this law?
   Put plainly the drafters of the Act either fundamentally don't understand the Web or they are being malicious. I'm assuming the former since I know that people like Rupert Murdoch of News Corp don't understand the Web. Here's an example. Assume a News Corp publication, like The New York Times, publishes an article on let's say a new Apple product. As an interested tech blogger, I write a piece and use the NYT's article as my primary source, perhaps using some quotes from it and of course linking to the article. All perfectly fine you think, that's how blogs work.
   But no. Rupert Murdoch believes, and he has said this, that to refer to the content of his publications you should require News Corp's permission and presumably pay a fee. This shows a profound misunderstanding of how the Web was designed and envisaged. A central feature of the Web is you don't need the permission of a web page's owner to link to it, all you need is the URL (web address). Including a quotation near the link might be what would stimulate someone's interest to click the link  and should be deemed "fair use." The point of the Web is that it empowers user generated content and user curation. It is not a passive consumption media like the old school publishers would like us to return to - they write it, you buy it and read it.
    Okay, so what's all the fuss. If Rupert Murdoch doesn't want me to link to his publications he can send me a cease and desist order. But no, if SOPA were law News Corp could instruct your ISP to block blogger.com's IP address (and hence remove your access to all blogger.com blogs) and force Google to remove my blog from its search results without there even being a court case. All News Corp would need to do is persuade a friendly judge I had infringed their copyright.
    This is the problem with SOPA it gives Big Media unprecedented powers to shutdown parts of the Web without offering those accused any right to a fair trial.