Show of hands: How many of you tried to go to Wikipedia on Wednesday and, instead of reading “List of Gilmore Girls Episodes,” were puzzled by the black and white screen that said “Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge”?
Every English-language article was blocked, the frivolous ones and the serious ones. You couldn’t read the entry “United States Constitution” either.
Effective? Absolutely. And for good purpose.
Wikipedia and thousands of other websites that got involved this week were drawing attention to two bills in Congress that would chill the free flow of information on the Internet. In the wake of the campaign and Obama administration opposition, lawmakers fled from the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect Intellectual Property Act in the Senate. On Friday, House and Senate leaders dropped efforts to push the bills.
The bills have a worthy goal: trying to combat the rampant theft and distribution of intellectual property, such as films and music, through the Internet. But they would have put a broad burden on Internet service providers to block to websites that are alleged to be illegally distributing pirated material. The burden would extend to payment and advertising networks, too. Any website that linked to pirated material, even unknowingly, could be shut down. As we wrote in November, the bills try to turn Internet providers into the Internet police.
So, these bills are dead. What’s next for Internet piracy legislation?
Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California introduced a promising alternative this week. The Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act is more targeted in its approach. It focuses on foreign-based websites, establishes a sound appeals process and would apply only to websites that “willfully” promote copyright violation. In the spirit of a free Internet, Issa’s office has opened the bill for comment online, Wiki-style, at KeepTheWebOpen.com.
Issa’s bill wouldn’t claim innocent victims and would respect due process. It deserves to be the focus of a real debate on intellectual property.
It won’t grind Internet piracy to a halt. Copyright violators have a lot of avenues around the law. The key to anti-piracy efforts still rests with the music and film industry. It has to be nimble about technological advances.
Consider music sharing: After the illegal music-file-sharing site Napster fell, Kazaa took its place; Limewire replaced Kazaa; BitTorrent replaced Limewire. In the middle of all that, iTunes grew to facilitate tens of millions of legal downloads every day.
Consider the success of iTunes (and Netflix Instant and Hulu Plus and Spotify): Consumers want to see movies and listen to music in a format that’s convenient for them, and the majority of them are willing to pay a fair price for the privilege.
Legislation can’t force people to opt for a $25 DVD instead of a free torrent. Wider availability and expanded formatting options can make it much more likely they will pay for a legal streaming copy, though. Hollywood needs to find distribution strategies that work with the Internet, not against it.