SOPA/PIPA and Piracy

I’m going to cut through a lot of crap about intellectual property, copyright theory, and online piracy today.

The purpose of copyright and patent law is to guarantee the creator of a piece of creative work — artwork, a story, an invention, a method of production, etc. — a suitable period of time to make a profit on his or her genius, should he or she wish to do so, before the work would be released into the public domain so everyone could make the best use of it. Once upon a time, twenty years seemed like a good number. Later, this time was expanded to be the lifetime of the creator — just in case the creator really only had one good idea in his or her lifetime and couldn’t also hold down a day job. Incorporated entities began to be able to get locks on intellectual properties and used copyright and patent law to try to ensure they could recoup the investments of research and development. And individual copyrights began to expand past the death of the creators to ensure income for estates and families that wanted a free ride on dead ancestors’ ideas. And corporations lobbied for longer and longer extensions, basically buying themselves longer periods of profitability without having to actually #^@&ing work for it.

So now it’s kind of out of hand.

Understand I’m a writer — an author, a content creator. I’m also a smidge of an inventor, a programmer, a systems and processes designer, capable of churning out buckets of intellectual property — some tiny percentage of which might actually be worthwhile enough to spin into a modest income. I may actually be a literal genius, but I’m no Richard Feynman, Stephen King, or Dean Kamen. Maybe I’m too lazy, undermotivated, underfinanced, and/or undisciplined to compete on just the raw naked power of my brain. But I’m officially in the market and that’s where my opinions come from.

Think about the word “piracy” for just a moment. Just long enough to realize that it’s a dramatic and overblown term that in no way actually describes, literally or metaphorically, what happens when someone makes a copy of material in a way that violates copyright principles. Okay, that’s enough.

We used to have a term, “plagiarism”, that did the job just fine. Strange and hard to pronounce and spell, perhaps, but accurate. For discussions like this, I prefer accuracy to drama and emotional manipulation. That’s my preference, but I know it’s a losing battle to try to take a cool word like pirate from your mouth and replace it with something prosaic like plagiarist.

When someone plagiarizes the work of a creator, they take a piece of work, copy it, and present it as their own work. Possibly they put their name down as the creator and use it to unfairly add to their glory, at the expense of fame and recognition that ought to be due the actual creator. More often they just offer copies for sale and keep any money that would actually be due the creator. Or even more frequently they offer free download — and make their money from selling advertising on a site that will be undoubtedly more popular than any site that charges actual money for a copy of the work. No actual cutlasses or belaying pins or swinging from any rigging occurs — though I kind of wish it did.

The only reason piracy has become the official term of endearment for the process is that a cartel of wealthy corporations that are the middlemen between content creators and consumers want to keep the traditional punishment for piracy — hanging — in the minds of the public as suitable for the perpetrators. And it’s not like those corporations actually pay the creators a living wage for turning their works into the bulk of what hits the market. Teachers and firemen make more money than the average Hollywood scriptwriter. Less than five percent of novelists can even dream of quitting their day jobs. There are zillions of performing musicians and songwriters that can’t even cover the expenses of traveling and taking days off from paying work to set up somewhere and play for an hour or two. Corporate labels, Hollywood production companies, and publishing conglomerates do all the work of harvesting talent, contracting work, producing, promoting, distributing, marketing, etc., and they are the ones that reap the huge bulk of the profits. Because otherwise there is no way for a creator to market themselves. Until recently.

These huge corporations are the ones that claim they lose some of those profits when their highly-polished works are offered for sale or download by people who pay them nothing for the privilege. And while that may certainly be true to some extent, it’s not the situation as they paint it.

Most of the people who download copyrighted works do so because they don’t have the spare money to pay for it. So they wouldn’t be paying for it anyway. No money lost. Many of the people who download copyrighted works realize that their downloaded version is not as high-quality as a commercial version and will actually buy a copy later anyway — assuming it wasn’t crap. Nearly all of the people who download books or movies or music will talk about it with their friends if they actually enjoyed it — and that can actually generate a huge amount of sales.

“Pirate” networks provide a ton of expensive services for a creator for free. Distribution, marketing, market analysis, critical reviews and discussion. If you are unsigned — independent producer, not signed with any production house or label, small press or independently publishing — the pirate networks can offer you critical distribution and exposure and feedback you’d never be able to afford. You could actually even get people to start paying you money for your work directly, if you swing it right, and undercut the huge corporate middleman network that would otherwise only pay you a pittance per copy sold. Pirate networks put content creators in direct competition with huge corporate distributors.

And that is why those corporations are paying huge amounts of money to lobbyists to push through SOPA- and PIPA-like legislation. Also please pay attention to the fact that they are completely circumventing the assumption of innocence and due process. They want to shut down entire sites, one tiny portion of which might be accused of infringing, by mere accusation, and maybe you can get your site turned back on if you can prove you weren’t actually committing a crime. Despite the argument about what is actually illegal and what might arguably not need to be illegal, giving a conspiracy of corporations an immediate off-switch to silence unsigned content creators is an abomination.

The United States has a extensive and completely legal web of “pirate networks” that have been operating for hundreds of years, called “libraries”, that have been trying to provide the same utility as, say, PirateBay, but, for some reason, they don’t have the funding to be the community-embedded fountains of ideas and cultural enrichment that they were designed to be. I’m not exactly sure how they’ve fallen out of favor. Perhaps it’s too socialist an idea to fly in today’s unbridled capitalist and corporation-dominated society. But if we want to solve the “pirate” problem, fixing the “library” situation to be remotely effective as a 21st century institution is the only sensible path.

Just for an exercise, go back through the last several paragraphs and substitute “public library” for “pirate network” and see how well it works.


January 18, 2012 · by xalieri · Posted in Everything Else  


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