A Reader's Guide to the SOPA Blackout

5 essential reads about the open Web, intellectual property, and copyright law.
4 stories

Among the Web sites that have gone dark today in an unprecedented Web protest against the Stop Online Privacy Act are Google, Craigslist, MIT Admissions, MoveOn.org, Mozilla, Flickr, Reddit, Pressthink.org, Ars Technica, O'Reilly Media, Wired, Fark, WordPress, BoingBoing, and Fail Blog. These sites — and thousands of others — have gone dark for the day to register their opposition to the controversial bill. Wired explains who'll be targeted if it passes: "The legislation for the most part is directed at foreign websites dedicated to infringing activities. Think the Pirate Bay, for one, which supports itself with advertising. Sites ending in .com, .org or .net generally are not targeted, but the government says it already has the power to seize and shut down sites on those top-level domains in a program known as 'Operation in Our Sites.' However, the orders to block infringing sites will go to U.S.-based search engines, ad networks, payment processors and ISPs."

After reading the full bill in November, Conor Friedersdorf panned it in The Atlantic. "The certain costs include disrupting the business models of countless technology companies that are not in the business of piracy; handing the federal government substantial and unprecedented powers over the Internet; entrenching a guilty-until-proven-innocent attitude toward copyright infringement; making the Internet less secure for everyone; arguably infringing on the First Amendment; contravening internationally recognized Internet standards; and undermining international press freedoms and human rights," he writes. "In return, online piracy will perhaps be marginally more difficult, though by no means will it be impossible. Perhaps big entertainment companies will see a slight boost in profits. And perhaps U.S. consumers will enjoy a bit more protection against, for example, foreign sites selling counterfeit drugs." The problem with that tradeoff? "Just as the impossibility of eradicating the drug trade and the insistence that we must do so has led to increasingly draconian attacks on civil liberties and harm to innocent parties," he concluded, "so this bill treats the daunting challenge of ending Internet piracy as license to implement measures so extreme we'll all suffer under them in myriad ways."

Julian Sanchez cast further doubt on the severity of the problem the bill is meant to address. "I remain a bit amazed that it's become an indisputable premise in Washington that there's an enormous piracy problem, that it's having a devastating impact on US content industries, and that some kind of aggressive new legislation is needed tout suite to stanch the bleeding. Despite the fact that the Government Accountability Office recently concluded that it is 'difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the net effect of counterfeiting and piracy on the economy as a whole,' our legislative class has somehow determined that—among all the dire challenges now facing the United States—this is an urgent priority," he writes. "Obviously, there's quite a lot of copyrighted material circulating on the Internet without authorization, and other things equal, one would like to see less of it. But does the best available evidence show that this is inflicting such catastrophic economic harm—that it is depressing so much output, and destroying so many jobs—that Congress has no option but to Do Something immediately? Bearing the GAO's warning in mind, the data we do have doesn't remotely seem to justify the DEFCON One rhetoric that now appears to be obligatory on the Hill."

Robert Boynton zoomed out and looked at the bigger issue of intellectual property in the Internet age. "Not long ago, the Internet's ability to provide instant, inexpensive and perfect copies of text, sound and images was heralded with the phrase 'information wants to be free.' Yet the implications of this freedom have frightened some creators -- particularly those in the recording, publishing and movie industries -- who argue that the greater ease of copying and distribution increases the need for more stringent intellectual property laws," he writes. "The movie and music industries have succeeded in lobbying lawmakers to allow them to tighten their grips on their creations by lengthening copyright terms. The law has also extended the scope of copyright protection, creating what critics have called a 'paracopyright,' which prohibits not only duplicating protected material but in some cases even gaining access to it in the first place. In less than a decade, the much-ballyhooed liberating potential of the Internet seems to have given way to something of an intellectual land grab, presided over by legislators and lawyers for the media industries."

And Cory Doctorow tried to think through what it is we want copyright to do. "If copyright is to have winners and losers, then let's start talking about who we want to see winning, and what victory should be. In my world, copyright's purpose is to encourage the widest participation in culture that we can manage – that is, it should be a system that encourages the most diverse set of creators, creating the most diverse set of works, to reach the most diverse audiences as is practical," he writes. "That is, I don't want a copyright system that precludes making money on art, since there are some people who make good art who, credibly, would make less of it if there wasn't any money to be had. But at the same time, I don't think that you can judge a copyright system by how much money it delivers to creators – imagine a copyright system for films that allowed only one single 15-minute short film to be made every year, which, by dint of its rarity, turned over £1bn."

From the Web

Sopa, Internet Regulation, and the Economics of Piracy

Jan 2012
From the Web

Patent Upending

The invention police can’t stand Greg Aharonian, who says the fuss over Amazon’s “one-click” plan is old news. The real problem: The government lost its grip on intellectual property long ago.

Jun 2000
From the Web

What Do We Want Copyright to Do?

Without posing this question, asking whether intellectual property laws are working is like asking how long is a piece of string.

Nov 2010

The Tyranny of Copyright?

A number of influential lawyers, scholars and activists are increasingly concerned that copyright law is curbing our freedoms and making it harder to create anything new. This could be the first new social movement of the century.