Sunday, January 15, 2012

Against SOPA, Part 1

In response to a couple of petitions against the "Stop Online Piracy Act" (SOPA) on, the official White House response, while somewhat balanced, included strong anti-piracy language and insisted that we need new legislation to combat piracy. Somehow, they insist, we need new legislation even though the entertainment industries already got the strong anti-piracy law that they wanted passed in 1998, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act... alongside the other law they wanted, the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, which retroactively extended corporate copyrights (as well as personal copyrights) by 20 years to nearly 100 years, to allow Disney and other companies to make slightly more money on films that their grandfathers made in the 1920s.

The White House response did had something constructive to say:
So, rather than just look at how legislation can be stopped, ask yourself: Where do we go from here? Don’t limit your opinion to what’s the wrong thing to do, ask yourself what’s right. Already, many of members of Congress are asking for public input around the issue. We are paying close attention to those opportunities, as well as to public input to the Administration. The organizer of this petition and a random sample of the signers will be invited to a conference call to discuss this issue further with Administration officials and soon after that, we will host an online event to get more input and answer your questions.
I enjoyed some of the responses on Slashdot. I'll post a couple that I think deserve reading.

But first, why is there a controversy about copyright? Part of the controversy is manufactured by those who have the most to gain from copyright laws, and especially those who have gained the most in the past from copyright laws and are annoyed that they are not getting as much money as they used to. The Time-Warners and Disneys of the world used to have total control over film and music distribution, and they could charge a lot for their services and make a continuously large and safe income. In the age of the internet people can legitimately look elsewhere for entertainment--YouTube, Reddit, StumbleUpon, and thousands of other web sites provide interesting low-priced and noncommercial entertainment. And, of course, people can easily copy commercial content without permission from the big companies. Ever since the internet became popular in 1996 or so, the Time-Warners and Disneys have been terrified of the potential piracy and alternate distribution channels that it enables, and they have been using their large influence in the U.S. congress and elsewhere to get more anti-piracy and strong-copyright laws passed.

These big companies want nothing less than the easy, safe income they used to enjoy. Unfortunately, they can only do this by fighting the free flow of information that makes the internet so wonderful. But the fight against piracy is technically unwinnable as long as an open internet exists, so they invent things like SOPA which contain provisions that are more likely to shut down legitimate sites like YouTube than stop piracy. For example, until two days ago SOPA allowed companies to get DNS entries blocked in the U.S. Any technologist will tell you that this does nothing to stop habitual pirates, it only affects 'casual' users who don't know how to get around the DNS block.

But, part of the controversy is more legitimate, and both sides have very valid points. On the one hand, people absolutely deserve to be paid for their work, and historically copyright has been the mechanism that allowed authors and artists to be paid for their work. Since copyright is almost the only mechanism that the law provides to help people make money for making movies, books, software and music, many people understandably want strong copyright protections. On the other hand, pirate-friendly people point out that copying a work costs virtually nothing, and it doesn't seem fair to be forced to pay for something that actually costs nothing.

Brain-fu says:
If the economy depends on the imposition of artificial scarcity on an abundant good, then the terms have to be reasonable.

20 year copyright term limits are very reasonable. The current term limits + options to extend are absolutely unreasonable, and they drive people to rebellion.

Also, while it is true that a punishment should be a deterrent to crime, the punishment must also be within the order-of-magnitude of actual damages in order to be just. The current punishments are outright ridiculous, and they also drive people to rebellion.

Make fair laws and enforce them fairly, and watch the people happily fall in line.
That's why we should reject SOPA. Copyright laws already punish the fundamental building block of digital technology, copying, in unreasonable ways. So pushing copyright laws further in the same direction is wrongheaded at this point. Instead, we should be looking at how to help authors get paid when they do good work, work that others find useful or worthwhile. And in particular I think we should focus more on paying people more for their work rather than for copies of the final result. Listen to Solandri:
Some industries have already made this transition. Wedding photographers used to shoot weddings for a minimal fee, the charged a large amount for prints and reprints. If you wanted extra copies of your wedding photos for your extended family, you had to pay for the extra prints.

With the advent of scanners and dirt-cheap photo printers, they've transitioned to a model where they charge a lot for shooting the wedding, but charge little for the prints or even give them away for free. Technically they can charge for the prints as they did before, but realistically they know it's so easy to make copies there's no possible way they'd be able to enforce their copyright for every photo the take. So they've just restructured their payment system to reflect reality, rather than copyright laws.

Forget for a moment everything about copyright, publishing, movie/music production, etc. Think of this purely in terms of work vs. compensation. I shoot photos of a wedding and process the photos. That's a lot of work. I print pictures of said wedding. That's very little work. Under the old model, the payment system did not reflect my costs - I charged very little for the part which required a lot of work on my part, but charged a lot for the part which required almost no effort. The new system fixes this. I now charge a lot for the part which requires a lot of work, and charge little for the part which requires little work.

The same thing has got to happen to books, music, and movies. In the old days, musicians and actors were paid for live performances. That is the norm.

In the 20th century there was a bit less than 100 years where technology was good enough to allow mass duplication, but not good enough to lower cost of duplication to the point where individuals could duplicate. This allowed a business model to flourish in which payment did not reflect costs. Musicians and actors were able to work once, then sit back and make money over and over based on that single performance. This is not normal. No other business is like that - you have to constantly work if you want to keep making money.

Now in the 21st century, the cost of mass duplication has fallen far enough that it's now easily within grasp of the individual. No longer does it make sense for people to be charged large amounts of money for what is a nearly free service (duplication). People may be stuck on the morality of it because the 20th century way is all they've ever known. But strictly in terms of work invested vs. compensation, the 20th century way was clearly wrong since the most money was being made for the step which cost the least money.

The transition to a model where content creators are not paid for duplication services is not some new journey into unexplored territory. It is a return to what was the norm for millenia. For most of history, duplication was impossible (performances) or nearly impossible (books), so the only way to get paid was for the actual content creation. During the 20th century, duplication became possible, and content creators leveraged it to get paid multiple times over for the same work. Now in the 21st century duplication has become so cheap that people are starting to question if it's really fair for content creators to be paid multiple times for the same job. That is the true crux of the matter, not who owns the work or whether copying is stealing.

I do believe in copyright - the temporary monopoly does encourage creation. But the terms have to be reasonable. With duplication costs having dropped to almost zero, preventing society from making copies simply because of archaic laws does more harm than good. Something like 10-20 years for copyright seems about right to me. Copyright is fundamentally about encouraging creativity and creation of new content. A copyright term of life + 70 years discourages creativity, and instead encourages trying to figure out how to create something new once and live off it for the rest of your life.

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