Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Censoring the Internet?

A good deal of attention has been paid recently to the promotion and subsequent demise (or at least delay) of SOPA and PIPA.  Collectively, these two bills proposed a fundamental new approach to policing intellectual property rights on the Internet.  The furor over the bills, rightly, focused on the lack of due process involved, the incompatibility between the laws themselves and the technology driving the Internet, and the criminalization by association of ISP’s and content providers built into SOPA/PIPA.
It is frightening how close these bills came to passage with minimal public discourse.  Even more alarming is the strong, bipartisan support each bill enjoyed prior to the major Internet outcry.  Even with much of that support eroded, a significant number of members of congress support SOPA/PIPA.  With SOPA/PIPA more or less dead in the water, focus should be turned to the reason these bills existed in the first place.  Because of these reasons, we will see more of the same in the near future.
Some attention is currently focused on greed as a determinant.  Primarily these charges come from the more extreme SOPA/PIPA opponents, indeed some of these opponents are openly guilty of the piracy and copyright infringement that SOPA/PIPA were designed to combat.  These charges, though, miss the point in the larger debate.
The larger debate is an ongoing battle over the meaning of Intellectual Property in a globalized, digital world.  Virtually every advanced economy offers some form of market protections for inventors and creators in the form of patents and copyright.  Unfortunately, various countries have different standards for IP protection and the Internet exacerbates this problem due to the ease of rapid proliferation of digital works.  Further, our current copyright laws are highly confusing.  So much so that it is quite possible that the author of the SOPA bill himself may have committed copyright violation on his own website.
This fundamental right protects the creator’s ownership of IP, enabling them to leverage supernormal profits during their protected period.  While this seems like an affront to basic free markets, it is an affront commonplace in market-based, capitalist systems.  Further, if it is an affront, it carries some very well defended proof of need.  Lacking such protection of creative IP, market forces actually work to erode IP profitability – so much so that the costs of creativity generally exceed profits in a non-protected market.
In short, we need some form of IP protection.  The questions that emerge are how much, for how long, and in what form?
This is an incredibly important topic for small business, and business in general.  The Internet, in its current form, opens the door to many small businesses.  Whether we are talking about self-publishing e-books, writing apps for mobile devices, selling goods, or any number of other fronts, small business is thriving on the Internet. 
Given that neutral parties assess the overall economic damage from piracy to be rather trivial, we should take great caution before passing an act like SOPA/PIPA.  Effort should be made to protect IP, however that actions should take the form of standardizing IP definitions across countries and working to establish multi-national agreements to protect IP and enforce actions against extreme violators
At the same time, we should engage in a discussion of length of protection for IP.  Our current length of IP protection is based on a print economy wherein travel and publishing time ate into the profit potential period for the creator.  Given advancements in production and distribution technologies – and indeed due to the instant distribution capabilities of the Internet, we probably need to shorten (not lengthen) the window for copyright protection. 
We do need to remember that IP protection has a beneficial purpose.  While there are vested interests on both sides of the current debate, we need to work towards some form of simple, standardized, enforceable IP protection. 
SOPA/PIPA was not what we needed and worse, both bills may still come back. 

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