We Need to Talk about Piracy (But We Must Stop SOPA First)

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Much to my happiness, the internets are in a frenzy about the "Stop Online Piracy Act" (aka SOPA) and a similar bill: "PROTECT IP Act." There's a lot to these bills - and the surrounding furor - and I'm not going to go into it, but I recommend reading the actual bill and Open Congress info, the Wikipedia article, EFF's blog, and the various links at Stop American Censorship. Tomorrow - January 18th - a bunch of geeks are planning a SOPA Blackout Day to voice their discontent.

internet cable with lock Computer Internet Cable via shutterstock.com

I abhor SOPA for the same reasons as other geeks. I'm horrified that Congress has crafted a law that will screw with the architecture of the internet in ways that will undermine free speech. I love Josh Kopstein's post "Dear Congress, It's No Longer OK To Not Know How The Internet Works." And I'm glad that geeks are getting vocal, even if - as Clay Johnson has pointed out - geeks don't quite get how Congress works. I'm stoked that the White House has asked for a civil conversation around piracy (while also opposing SOPA's key pieces). And I find it utterly hysterical that Rupert Murdoch has come to geeks' turf (Twitter) to convey his pro-SOPA opinions, even as Obama steps in to state that he opposes SOPA.

In talking with non-geeks, I can't help but be fascinated that the debate has somehow been framed in the public eye as "pro-piracy" vs. "anti-piracy." Needless to say, that's the frame that Murdoch is advocating, even as geeks are pushing for the "pro-internet" vs. "pro-censorship" frame. What's especially intriguing to me is that the piracy conversation is getting convoluted even among politicos, revealing the ways in which piracy gets flattened to one concept. Teasing this issue out is especially important when we're talking about regulations that are meant to help with piracy. There are many different aspects of piracy, but for simplicity sake, I want to focus on two aspects that feed into bills like SOPA and PROTECT IP: piracy as a competitive issue vs. piracy as a cultural issue. This can often be split as software piracy vs. media piracy, but not always.

There are actually reasons to not be in favor of all forms of piracy, even if you're an unrepentant media pirate. Imagine that you are an appliance manufacturer in the United States. You make things like toasters. You are required to abide by American laws. You must pay your employees at least a minimum wage; you must follow American safety regulations. All of this raises the overhead of your production process. In addition, you must also do things like purchase your software legally. Your designers use some CAD software, which they pay for. Your accountants use accounting software, which they pay for. Sure, you've cut some costs by using "free" software but, by and large, you pay a decent amount of money to software companies to use the systems that they built.

You really want to get your toasters into Wal-Mart, but time and time again, you find yourself undercut by competitors in foreign countries where the safety laws are more lax, the minimum wage laws are nonexistent, and where companies aren't punished for stealing software. Are you grouchy? Of course you are. Needless to say, you see this as an unfair competition issue. There aren't legal ways of bending the market to create fair competition. You can't innovate your way out of this dilemma and so you want Congress to step in and make sure that you can compete fairly.

Combating software piracy in the supply chain is a reasonable request and part of what makes bills like PROTECT IP messy is that there's a kernel of this issue in these bills. Bills like this are also meant to go after counterfeit products. Most folks really want to know what's in baby formula or what's in the medicines they purchase. Unfortunately, though, these aspects of piracy quickly gets muddled with cultural facets of piracy, particularly once the media industries have gotten involved.

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