Why the Tech World’s in Denial on IP

Let me start by saying, I hope you are doing OK during these trying times. The threat of SOPA and PIPA has affected all of us, in ways large and small. We shall overcome.

I kid, of course. In reality, the only thing worse than the potential damage that SOPA might inflict is the wave of misplaced earnestness and hypocrisy displayed by much of the tech industry of late. To witness the reaction by big-name executives, major Internet companies and the majority of the digerati of late, you’d think these people believe their cause is the equivalent of the Egyptian protesters trying to take down Mubarak. There are more than a few folks who need to read some books about the 1960s. For one thing, there definitely seems to be some confusion about what the word censorship actually means. Nobody’s trying to ban “Huck Finn” from the library here. Nobody is going to be taken away by the secret police for rallying against the government on their Tumblr page.

In fact, however misguided some of the safeguards built into SOPA and PIPA are, it’s fundamentally about catching bad guys, not destroying free speech. And you should care about that more than you do.

It’s striking still to this day how naive some in Silicon Valley can be when it comes to the media industry. Many in the business still parrot the libertarian thinking from the Napster era — information yearns to be free, you can’t cut off ideas, the Internet is a utopia, etc.

Aren’t those days over? Google and Facebook are billion-dollar companies. This is about business, not philosophy or sociology. It’s time for some folks to ditch the bottle and start drinking from a big-kid cup. The tech industry acted shocked — shocked! — that the media world actually worked in Washington to enact a law that would suit their interests and protect their investments. If a movie studio is going to spend $250 million on “The Dark Knight Rises,” shouldn’t it do whatever it can to get paid for that product? If AMC is going to spend millions working on the next season of “Mad Men,” shouldn’t it go to great lengths to make sure someone doesn’t illegally stream the show on some website housed in the Virgin Islands or wherever? It’s not like these tech companies don’t frequently turn to legal cover when it comes to their own IP in the form of software patents.

The tech industry stands on the existing, porous Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which basically holds platforms blameless for illegal content uploaded to them so long as they act in a timely manner to take it down. This has proven wholly inadequate to fighting piracy online, as anyone with a mouse and rudimentary knowledge of a search engine knows quite well.

If somebody decided to walk into Wal-Mart and start handing out t-shirts with racist messages, or worse, started selling crack in the toys section, who do you think would be responsible? Could you see the manager explaining to the police, “You don’t understand, sir — it’s a really big store; I can’t possible see everything — that costs too much”?

Here’s a solution. If it truly costs too much to police your own website, don’t start a website that relies solely on users uploading whatever they want. You’re not up to the task.

Of course, I’m not a lawyer. I don’t pretend to be versed on the ins and outs of media legislation. But I’ve seen enough cop shows to know about aiding and abetting. You’re not supposed to help bad guys steal stuff. You can’t help criminals get away. Julianne Moore could have gotten into a ton of trouble for harboring Harrison Ford, which is why she called the cops.

People in the digital media world seem to scoff at the idea that piracy is something that should be dealt with (probably because so many of them participate one way or another) in any way that isn’t a business opportunity. There’s an irony that the solution of Silicon Valley is to build tech platforms that create the problem, then promise to build yet more services (Spotify, etc.) that theoretically make it better. There’s a collective denial going on that the industry has benefited from piracy. Did YouTube build its business in part on pirated content? You bet it did. Does it do a great job in blocking pirated content now? Absolutely. Try and find a clip from Major League Baseball on the site. Or any nudity for that matter. You can’t.

Do some ad networks sell ads on sites with pirated content? Of course they do. Here’s one from Adnetwork.net. Here’s an ad for Aer Lingus on a pirating site, which, according to Ghostery, was delivered via the DSP Turn. Does Google ever run links on torrent sites and the like? I’ve seen it with my own eyes. There’s money to be lost if piracy gets cracked down upon. Let’s not pretend there isn’t.

Obviously, there is some scary stuff in the way that SOPA and PIPA have been written. The idea that sites are responsible for what content is posted on their platform makes a ton of sense.

Clearly, they should be given a fair chance to deal with something like that in a reasonably timely manner before getting blocked from search results or shut down completely. It seems there’s got to be a way to write these laws with real teeth but also fairness.

But to act like the future of American freedom is at stake if people might actually have to pay to stream episodes of “American Horror Story” is beyond disingenuous. That’s hysterical. And not if a funny way.


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