Some final (?) thoughts on SOPA/PIPA

We did it! Apparently. Whatever “it” is.

Wednesday’s “SOPA Strike” finally got the attention of Congress (and millions of confused high school and college slackers who had to endure 24 hours without access to Wikipedia, humanity’s only known source of information). In the wake of the protests, sponsors of both the House and Senate bills “shelved” the bills.

For now, they’re gone. But do you remember the end of Halloween, when Loomis shoots Michael and he falls out the window, and then when they look down a second time, he’s gone? Yeah, that.*

Before I move on to other topics (hopefully forever), I just wanted to share some final thoughts about SOPA/PIPA.

1. They’re not really dead. Sure, it’s entirely possible that we’ll never hear about SOPA/PIPA — by those names — again. But if you think the MPAA, RIAA, and their legions of highly paid lobbyists are going to let it all go this easily, you must be new here. As long as there’s any chance that anything the entertainment industry owns is being copied illegally, which is to say, until copyright law is forgotten during the zombie apocalypse (which might just be led by Zombie SOPA itself), old media dinosaurs will continue to fight for their lives.

Actually dinosaurs employing an army of zombies to fight Internet cyborg pirates sounds like a perfect Hollywood movie idea. (Copyright 2012 Scott Anderson. All rights reserved.)

2. Piracy is not really the problem. Sure, piracy happens. Sure, it’s illegal, and very probably even “wrong.” But what’s really wrong (as in, factually incorrect) is the idea that piracy translates directly into lost income for movie studios and record labels, or, as they (and their cronies in Congress) like to put it, lost jobs for gaffers and key grips and best boys and Foley artists and all of those other weirdly named jobs you see scrolling by in extremely small type at the very end of the ending credits of big Hollywood movies.

Yes, if Hollywood goes down, it’s going to take those kinds of middle class jobs down with it. But trotting these people out to get the average person to support this legislation is not unlike Prolife Across America’s billboards with pictures of babies and speech bubbles saying “I could wiggle my toes at 18 weeks!” Bear with me. Regardless of whether they’re right or wrong on the issue, both tactics are designed to appeal on a very simple, gut emotional level, and to discourage critical thought about what’s really going on, whose agenda is really being promoted, and what the implications of that agenda are.

Aside from the documented cases of entertainment industry lobbyists making egregious “errors” in their calculations of the numbers of jobs affected or the billions of dollars “lost” each year to piracy, there’s the simple logical fallacy that every pirated movie or CD equates to a lost sale. On reflection, this should be obvious: many, if not most, of the people who are pirating a movie or an album were not likely to buy it otherwise.

Then again, sometimes getting a copy of an album from a friend turns a person into a lifelong fan of a musician. A personal example: in my life I have purchased every album ever released by both Rush and Yes, which is a lot (there are 31 Rush albums and 29 Yes albums in my iTunes library right now), several of them multiple times, as each new remastered version is released. I have seen these two bands in concert a combined 8 times. I’ve bought their concert videos on VHS and DVD. In all I’ve probably spent over $2000 in the past 20 years on my Rush and Yes obsessions. And it all began because a friend made me cassette copies of A Show of Hands and Classic Yes (both of which I subsequently purchased on CD) back in high school.

So, you see, piracy is not really the problem in two ways: 1) an instance of piracy doesn’t necessarily mean a lost sale up front, and 2) copying now may lead to a lot of purchasing later.

3. Copyright is broken anyway. The other day I mentioned that copyright law had been changed to allow Disney to retain exclusive rights to Mickey Mouse. In fact, the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 was even referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act! I’m not against copyright, per se. I believe that the creators of original works should reserve the right to decide how their works are used and distributed, and to profit from their efforts.

But I also believe that an ever-changing law that allows that protection to extend in perpetuity, long after the creator’s death, is counterproductive and harmful to the free exchange of ideas within a society. I’m firmly against software patents for the same reason. In fact, I’m even more against software patents than I am against indefinite copyright extension, but that’s a topic for another post. But I think it’s worth mentioning that I am equally, or even more so, opposed to protectionism in my own field than I am in the entertainment industry.

4. Adapt or die. That’s it, really. As I’ve noted previously, these bills (and any future legislation like them) are not really designed to protect the interests of content creators. They are intended to prop up a dying industry that grew fat on profits over a period (specifically the 1970s through the 1990s) when their business was built upon a model that is ultimately unsustainable, especially as new means of distribution have proliferated. Combine that with what is broadly regarded as a precipitous decline in the quality of their products, along with untenable pricing, and you have a perfect recipe for the kind of collapse and failure currently underway. Don’t blame piracy; blame yourselves for overcharging for a product of low value.

P.S. Boy, it feels good to be able to link to Wikipedia again!

* You seriously haven’t seen it, and I spoiled the ending for you? Whatever. Also, would describing a portion of a film in a blog post like this have been a prosecutable offense under SOPA/PIPA?

Recalling my brush with the DMCA, and how SOPA/PIPA would be immeasurably worse

This MetaTalk post concerning some erroneous DMCA* takedown notices reminded me of an episode from my personal experience that I had almost completely forgotten. It’s a good illustration of how even the DMCA — copyright holders’ current legal blunt instrument to wield against infringers, but nowhere near as powerful as SOPA/PIPA would be — can be used in harmful ways, either maliciously or mistakenly.

A geek, not a criminal

You see, I’m a geek. In particular, I’m a video game geek. I have a huge collection of 1980s video game antiquities. Over a dozen vintage consoles, hundreds of game cartridges. I even have a box full of instruction manuals and those catalogs Atari used to pack in with each game. And for a time earlier in the 2000s, I ran a website chronicling this obsession. I had meticulously compiled a spreadsheet of all of the games in my collection, and turned that into a page on the site, where visitors could (for some unimaginable reason) learn all about the contents of the bins full of 20+ year old plastic and silicon that I kept in my basement. It was harmless (if somewhat ridiculous) fun.

But, you see, there’s this thing called emulation. People have written computer software that emulates the hardware of these old game consoles. And people have also developed ways to “dump” the ROMs (programs) of those games as files that can be run in these emulators, allowing you to play long-lost vintage console and arcade games on your computer.

The nature of the Internet makes it very easy to share these emulators and ROMs. Except, under copyright law, it’s illegal. The emulators themselves are not illegal, and as I understand it, if you own the original cartridges, dumping their ROMs is fair use. But possessing the ROMs without owning the physical game is against the law, and sharing the ROMs online definitely is.

So, the copyright holders in these old games, at least the ones like Nintendo who still have lots of money and actually care about protecting those copyrights, have teams of lawyers scouring the Internet for sites that are illegally distributing ROMs. Under DMCA, they can demand that owners/hosts of infringing sites take down the infringing content, or face legal action.

And that’s where my dumb little video game collection site comes in. I never shared a single ROM on that site (and would never be stupid enough to try). But Nintendo’s lawyers didn’t bother to figure that out. They simply saw an HTML table full of the names of old video games, some of which were Nintendo’s IP, and they contacted my web host at the time, who also happened to be my former boss.

He called me on the phone (a rare occurrence) and was noticeably agitated. He couldn’t believe I was doing something so stupid. Because I wasn’t. Once I reassured him that Nintendo’s lawyers were barking up the wrong tree, his tone changed. He’s a Ron Swanson-esque libertarian, and was ready to fight back. And that’s the last I heard of it.

You’ve probably encountered some DMCA takedowns yourself. YouTube is the most common place to find them. Have you ever clicked a YouTube link, but instead of seeing the video, you were presented with a black box with a message explaining that the video had been removed at the copyright holder’s request? That’s the DMCA at work.

Much worse

Under SOPA/PIPA, YouTube itself could be taken down**. For that one infringement. Any any sites that were linking to that one infringing YouTube video could be taken down as well.

For a couple of years (up until word started spreading about SOPA), I was running another site called “Hall of Prog: A Curated Exhibition of Progressive Rock on YouTube.” Every post on that site was a link to a YouTube video. And given that it was all copyrighted music, most of the videos were probably infringing. Indeed, over the time I ran the site, a huge percentage of the videos on it (especially ones featuring Robert Fripp) were replaced with YouTube’s generic DMCA takedown message. When it started to look like SOPA might pass late in 2011, I decided it wasn’t worth taking any chances, so I took down the entire site. Now it’s just a redirect to

I was not making money on that site. There were no ads. And I was certainly not trying to deny the artists/copyright holders (which should be the same thing, but rarely are) their right to revenue. In fact, if anything, I was giving them free advertising. Yes, people make that claim whenever they share something. But I made sure to include links to both the artist and album page on for every video I posted. (YouTube sure doesn’t do that.)

Copyrights (and patents) stand at odds with the free exchange of information. There’s no way around that. As a creator myself, I deeply defend the rights of people who produce creative works to benefit financially from their efforts and to decide how and where their works are distributed. But those rights also have to be balanced with the greater societal good to be gained from freedom of speech and sharing ideas. For decades, if not centuries, means of communication changed very slowly, and copyright law could adapt (or not even bother to adapt) with them. But the Internet has changed everything, and old school copyright holders (especially corporate behemoths like the movie and music industries) have scrambled frantically for the past decade and a half not to lose their foothold — no, make that their stranglehold — over copyrighted content.

I personally believe copyright, as it is currently written, doesn’t work. (That’s why I release my work under Creative Commons licensing.) It doesn’t help that Congress keeps extending the lifespan of a copyright so Disney won’t lose control over Mickey Mouse. (No, seriously… Google it. Tomorrow***.) But I respect the law enough that I make a concerted effort to ensure that the things I do online do not infringe copyright, or are covered by fair use. I cannot, however, just sit back and let the entertainment industrial complex steamroll over my entire livelihood and way of life simply to fight (spurious claims of) piracy.

It’s not too late

The point of all of this is: we already have a law designed to allow copyright holders to take action (before resorting to legal recourse) against copyright infringers, the DMCA. And even that has already been shown to pose the risk of abuse. But the scope of damage the DMCA can inflict is at least mitigated such that it cannot significantly impede the free exchange of information and ideas so critical to making the Internet what it is — something that so many of us depend on every day. We cannot risk what SOPA/PIPA would do to our age of information. (See what I did there?)

Get involved! Go to to learn more.


* That’s a Wikipedia link, so you’ll have to wait until after the SOPA/PIPA blackout to look at it.

** SOPA/PIPA is only supposed to apply to sites hosted outside the United States, but this would be hard to enforce, and could easily end up affecting U.S.-hosted sites as well.

*** Yes, I know Google’s “blackout” isn’t really a blackout. It was a joke.

Participate in Wednesday’s SOPA strike

Looking for an easy way to participate in tomorrow’s SOPA (and PIPA) strike? The SOPA Strike website has some code you can use to automatically load this page.

I’ve set up my own customized version, which you’re welcome to use. This does not completely black out your site. Instead, the page loads with a black screen. Then after a few seconds, the words "STOP SOPA" with a "Learn more…" link appear in white. The black box then fades to slightly transparent and animates to the upper left corner of the screen. It then stays fixed in the corner as the user scrolls around. The site is still usable, but the “STOP SOPA” message is ever-present. (Be forewarned: as I did not take the time to set up cookies, the entire process also repeats on each new page load.)

If you’d like to see how it works, I set up an awesome fake site to demonstrate the blackout animation in action.

If your site is already using jQuery, simply copy the code below into your page, ideally just after the <body> tag:

<script type="text/javascript" src=""></script>

If you’re not already using jQuery on your site, you just need to include it from Google Code first, like this:

<script type="text/javascript" src=""></script>
<script type="text/javascript" src=""></script>

If you’re using PHP, you can even use this code to automatically make it appear at 8 AM EST and disappear at 8 PM EST. (Update the times as needed to represent your time zone, and remove the Google Code line if you’re already using jQuery.)

if (time() > mktime(8,0,0,1,18,2012) && time() < mktime(20,0,0,1,18,2012)) {
<script type="text/javascript" src=""></script>
<script type="text/javascript" src=""></script>

Note: As indicated above, I built this quickly, and have not done a lot of cross-browser testing. It’s pretty basic, but it may not display correctly in some older browsers, especially earlier versions of Internet Explorer. Use at your own risk… just like the Internet itself!

Why I care so much about stopping SOPA/PIPA (and why you should care too)

As someone who works with, and is constantly immersed in, the Internet, I’ve been hearing a lot about SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act, in the House) and PIPA (the Protect IP Act, in the Senate) over the last couple of months. But I suspect most Americans have heard much less about these bills currently under “debate” in the US House of Representatives and Senate. That’s the way the sponsors of these bills (and their corporate donors) likely want it.

You can read the text of the bills, or the innocuous-sounding summaries the government has published. On the surface, without careful reflection, they seem like good ideas, designed to protect hard-working American creators from having their intellectual property stolen. But the implications of these bills, for freedom of speech, for innovation, even for the very feasibility of their technical implementation, are anything but innocuous, and may irreparably harm, rather than protect, the American economy.

What’s it really all about?

Let us be frank: the true objective of these bills is not to prevent illicit foreign websites from destroying American jobs by stealing our movies and music. It is to prop up a dying dinosaur media industry that would rather kill innovation than have to learn to change. Follow the money. A simple look at the lists of corporate supporters of SOPA/PIPA, along with the corresponding list of companies that oppose these bills, tells the story.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), countless “old media” conglomerates. These are the companies that want these bills to pass, because they are in their death throes after over a decade of spending their dwindling profits on fighting, in any way they can, the changes the Internet has wrought, refusing to admit that the massive profits they achieved from the 1970s through the 1990s were built upon an unsustainable model. These industries refuse to adapt. Adaptation is hard. But the world changes. You have to be prepared to change with it, or die.

So what’s the threat?

The Internet has fundamentally transformed the way people communicate, and as a result it has changed the way they get their entertainment. Sure, piracy is a problem. It needs to be dealt with. But there are also huge opportunities to build profitable businesses legitimately selling entertainment products (intellectual property) online. iTunes, Amazon and Netflix prove that. The problem for old media, though, is that the Internet has obviated their role as a high-markup middleman. Look at Louis CK’s wildly successful experiment in DIY production and promotion. Change or die.

True, as the old entertainment industry contracts, American jobs are being lost. But the entertainment industry is a small piece of America’s GDP. By contrast, the Internet, and more broadly, information technology, is significantly larger. (According to Census Bureau data, in 2008 the film, recording and broadcasting industries employed 643,089 people; information services, software publishers and computer systems employed 3,443,162 people.)

The Internet is possibly the brightest spot in America’s economy right now, and it is profoundly threatened by what SOPA/PIPA could do. So, in effect, Congress is preparing to kill (or at least maim) one of the most thriving parts of our economy to save a sector that is going to die anyway. (I’m trying to think of an analogy to make here but they’re all too gruesome.)

How does it work?

Aside from understanding the true motivations of SOPA/PIPA, it’s just as important to understand the implications these bills have for American Internet companies, our cherished freedom of speech, and the daily use of the Internet, even by Americans who by and large are engaging in purely harmless, infringement-free activities.

I’m about as squeaky-clean as Internet users come when it comes to copyright. Sure, I may have a handful of music files on my hard drive that I got from friends, just like we’d dub cassettes of our favorite CDs back in the late ’80s and early ’90s to share. Ever heard of a mixtape? But the overwhelming majority of my 18,000+ songs were purchased legitimately, either on CD or through download services like iTunes or Amazon. And a lot of the music I own, I purchased because I learned about it through friends. Even if they had already given me copies of the music. Even in the peak of the music industry’s profits from CD sales in the ’90s, that’s how it worked.

(I’m also a content producer myself, as a blog writer and independent musician. I’m skeptical of current copyright law and as such have taken to releasing all of my work under Creative Commons licensing. But that’s a topic for another post.)

The point is, sharing music doesn’t necessarily reduce music sales. I’d argue that, in limited quantities, between friends with similar tastes, it actually encourages music sales. But even if we agree that illicit copying and redistribution of things like movies and music is bad (and, when it’s done at a large scale, I do) piracy is not what’s killing old media — mediocre content and exorbitant pricing are. And SOPA/PIPA can’t help that.

The real danger of these bills is in their implementation. While ostensibly they’re only targeted at foreign websites, their means of recourse against infringers could result in the blocking of entire sites due to the alleged infringing activities of one member. This sledgehammer approach has broad-reaching implications for all Internet users in the United States (to say nothing of what it means for free speech, and the company it places America in amongst governments that censor the Internet).

What’s worse, it won’t even work. Already there is much discussion online of means of circumvention (which I will not link to here), and, worse, it breaks the Internet. I don’t just mean that it is going to destroy the way we use the Internet. I mean it actually runs contrary, on a deep technical level, to how the Internet functions. Even SOPA supporter Comcast (my ISP… for now) admits, albeit inadvertently, that at least on a technical level the requirements of the law are incompatible with how the Internet works.

A threat to America’s small-business owners

I’m one of those fabled “small business owners” politicians so love to talk about. I’ve been freelancing full-time in web development since 2008. Business has been great, even through the worst economic times in America since the Great Depression. All of the work I do is 100% legitimate, for honest, productive American businesses. This is the new economy, and it is America’s best hope for a brighter future. I’m expecting to expand my business this year, becoming an even larger presence in the community and helping to further spur on positive economic activity.

But SOPA/PIPA threaten the way I do business. Republicans in Congress put on some great political theater in 2009-2010 in their fight against “Obamacare,” claiming its provisions represented an undue threat to small businesses. But here we have a real threat to small and growing Internet-related businesses. If passed, these laws will impose odious burdens of monitoring and self-policing upon website owners, and the threat of takedown without due process will have a chilling effect on whether or not new ventures even get started. In short, nothing could more effectively put the brakes on this “engine of growth” for the American economy.

Take action

So what can you do? Old media still has deep pockets, and is well-represented on K Street. It has the ears of Congress. But, last I checked, these elected officials do also still represent us, the individual Americans who will be affected by these bills. So call them. Politely tell them why you believe these bills are bad. Check out other online resources that can help you get involved.

I will admit, however, that personally I have not attempted to contact any of my representatives. I already know that my House representative, Keith Ellison, opposes SOPA. Over in the Senate, unfortunately, Amy Klobuchar is one of the sponsors of PIPA. And, despite his genuine progressive spirit and work on behalf of American individuals, Al Franken is simply too deeply connected to old media not to also back PIPA. I sincerely doubt either of Minnesota’s senators will be convinced to change their position, no matter how many constituents call them.

But your representatives may still be on the fence. Reach out to them. Let them know why you think these bills are not just bad, but downright dangerous for America. The implications for America if they pass are far bleaker than the prognosis for the industries they are intending to protect.

And, this is an election year. Vote. While it will most likely be too late to affect SOPA/PIPA, do your part to make sure none of its supporters get re-elected in November. I have been a strong supporter of Amy Klobuchar in the past, even having donated to her first campaign, but unless she withdraws her sponsorship of PIPA, I will not be voting for her re-election this year.

As someone who works in the Internet, the implications of SOPA/PIPA are huge for me and for my business. But this affects us all.

Tell me more!

As with a lot of hot-button issues, when I get my dander up it’s sometimes hard for me to calmly and clearly explain the rationale for my argument. I’ve linked throughout this post to some great resources for learning more about what SOPA/PIPA is and why it’s bad, but as I come across other sites that do a more effective job of explaining it than I have, I’ll add them here.

Other sites discussing problems with SOPA/PIPA

Updates on the fight against SOPA/PIPA