This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
America saw political history made Wednesday. Think colonial Minutemen decimating formidable redcoats – but firing from the Web, not fences and trees.
The British army in this case was a powerful alliance of film makers, music labels, media companies and artists – creators and copyright-holders whose films, recordings, software and products have been getting plundered or counterfeited by Internet pirates.
They had the lobbyists; they had the money.
The colonials were such Internet upstarts as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia, and countless Web enterprises that depend on user uploads and links.
The creators desperately wanted Congress to approve the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act, a measure that would have made it far easier for them – too easy – to threaten even websites unintentionally linked to thieves. Lawmakers looked all but certain to send the president a version of SOPA or its Senate cousin, the Protect Intellectual Property Act.
No bills so well-greased may have been smacked down so quickly. SOPA and PIPA were demolished by an online onslaught that culminated Wednesday when popular websites staged blackouts and Google steered its users to condemnations of the legislation.
Some of the bills’ most fervent supporters suddenly discovered reasons to back down: “Not ready for prime time,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch – one of PIPA’s original cosponsors.
The clash demonstrated the muscle and reach of the Web’s new giants – and their power to push around the old media giants of Hollywood, music and publishing. And now, Congress itself.
The creators aren’t exaggerating the problem of piracy. They produce the entertainment and intellectual properties and goods the Web feasts on, and far too many parasites siphon off the proceeds. The worst tapeworms are foreign sites that shamelessly sell or give away stolen digital goods on a massive scale.
Existing protections aren’t providing enough protection. The burden of enforcement rests largely on the victims. They can demand that their works be removed from a site, but the pirated material or links may show up again within weeks. Effective legal action can be impossible with rogue offshore websites.
SOPA and PIPA would have tipped the balance of power back to the creators – tipped it too far.
SOPA, for example, would have made a company like YouTube – whose business revolves around millions of user uploads – legally responsible for policing each and every video posted to its site. Web businesses operating in good faith would have been poorly protected. Even a copyright-violating video posted in malice might trigger the law’s sanctions.
These bills threatened the free-wheeling vitality of the Web; they deserved the withering sniper fire they got.
But … the problem behind them remains. Creators deserve stronger laws to protect them against parasites.
The people who write, compose, act, direct, perform, invent, research, report and produce are the ultimate sources of nearly everything on the Web. The rulers of the Internet should now sit down and figure out ways to keep them healthy and rightfully compensated.