The copyright standoff: Technology pits bad rules vs. no rules

The copyright standoff: Technology pits bad rules vs. no rules
Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen

On the morning of Jan. 18, Alexis Ohanian sat down, bleary-eyed, in front of his computer and, as he often did, opened Wikipedia. But this time something was wrong. The site refused to load. "Oh, right," he said to himself. "Today's the blackout day."

Ohanian was instrumental in organizing that blackout day, when a bunch of major websites — including Reddit, which he co-founded — went dark to protest the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) then being debated in the House of Representatives.

SOPA was a terrible bill. Nobody liked it, save its copyright-industry backers and congressional sponsors. Even people who favor some kind of legislation to combat unauthorized media downloading thought it was terrible.

The bill's terribleness (as well as that of the slightly-less-terrible Senate version, the Protect IP Act, or PIPA) should have been enough to do it in. Aimed at blocking access to foreign websites that might be purveying unauthorized copies of music, movies, videogames, and even knockoff products, SOPA was badly conceived, badly written, and posed a technical danger to the operation of the Internet. But if not for the groundswell of online protest, stirred up in part by the tech industry, it might have become law anyway. The House, at any rate, seemed poised to pass it until the blackout day, when representatives started withdrawing their support. Not all of them did so, however, and the danger remains that a clueless Congress will pass a similar measure, perhaps next year.

After SOPA was shelved, the media lobby backed off slightly — but only slightly — from its apocalyptic rhetoric. During a congressional hearing in June, though, Cary Sherman, head of the Recording Industry Association of America, warned what would happen if Congress failed to act against piracy: "Massive layoffs, of course. But also less money to invest in artists. That means fewer artists on our rosters, fewer people who can make a living from music, fewer songs permeating through our culture that help form a piece of our national identity."

Got that? If you download a Beyoncé track, you destroy a piece of our national identity.

Such proclamations point to one of the most serious challenges involved with crafting reasonable copyright law and policy: These issues are too often debated as a zero-sum game, where the only choices are total corporate control over how media gets distributed and what can be legally done with it, or else total anarchy, where all media products are free. Each side accused the other of extremism, thus making a reasonable compromise harder to achieve. That sounds a lot like our national politics right now.

That morning, Ohanian did some other stuff online, then, out of habit, went to Reddit, the web's most popular social-news website. In just a couple of minutes, he says, "I had forgotten about the blackout again." He was exhausted from the months of work he had put in fighting SOPA, along with his many other projects. Among the more exhausting tasks was dealing with all the politics and the politicians. "I generally try not to dig too deeply into the inner workings of Washington," he says. "But here I was for three or four months, watching the sausage being made. "

It was, he says, "both exhilarating and depressing." Depressing because it's so different from the online world where he lives and works. "The Internet is a place where the best ideas always win. Washington's not like that."

Of course, the best ideas don't always win on the Internet. One look at YouTube or's comments section will tell you that. It is, however, a place where really bad ideas — like SOPA or, say, the Komen Foundation's decision to defund Planned Parenthood's breast-cancer screenings — are killed because social media enables an inescapable critical mass of public outrage.

The Internet is also a place where people hash out ideas. SOPA is shelved, and it might be dead, but the debate over piracy and copyright goes on, mainly online.

In June, Emily White, an intern at NPR, created a stir when she wrote a blog post about how she'd only bought about 15 CDs in her whole life, though she owned about 11,000 songs. Most were unauthorized copies she got from friends and from CDs she had ripped at her college radio station, not illicit downloads (a distinction she seemed to think was important). She breezily revealed her sense of entitlement, writing, "I honestly don't think my peers and I will ever pay for albums. I do think we will pay for convenience.... What I want is one massive, Spotify-like catalog of music that will sync to my phone and various home entertainment devices. With this new universal database, everyone would have convenient access to everything that has ever been recorded."

Before services like Spotify, White didn't have the "convenience" she believed was her right, so she just ripped CDs and got free music from friends. Musician David Lowery of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven fame wrote a response that went viral: "Fairly compensating musicians is not a problem that is up to governments and large corporations to solve," he told White. "It is not up to them to make it 'convenient' so you don't behave unethically."

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