Last Wednesday was, for the majority of online users, a day that will live in infamy. It will be remembered as the day Wikipedia, WordPress, and some ten thousand other sites underwent a blackout in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (H.R. 3261) and the PROTECT IP Act (S. 968). It will be remembered as the day that the offices of Congress were flooded with phone calls, e-mails, and petitions to consider the implications of these intellectual property-based bills and their effect on future online communications.
Like many other Internet users, I wrote to my Congressman and my Senators. I added my name to a petition by Organizing For America, and when asked my opinion by friends and family, I readily voiced my opposition to these two bills.
Speaking as a writer, I have no opposition to protecting American copyright and going after foreign rogue sites that infringe on said copyright. But as a blogger and a daily online user, I knew I could not support these bills when they did not connect with the reality of the World Wide Web.
Perhaps the biggest issue so many of us have with these bills is that they empower the entertainment industry to go after what it perceives to be any instance of copyright violation. While there are legitimate sites that do violate copyright and deserve to be taken down, there are also so many other sites that have honored creators’ rights and yet were still penalized for “infringement” simply because the right holders misunderstood the fair use practices of said websites. The one that most easily pops to my mind was the 2010 incident involving Doug Walker and That Guy With The Glasses, when Wiseau-Films tried to have his review of The Room taken down. In the end, Mr. Walker defended his innocence and his legally acceptable use of film clips for the purposes of his review, especially given that so many larger film studios were more than content to let him and other reviewers use their footage in the aegis of fair use policies.
It’s also telling that, even after SOPA and PIPA were delayed in Congress, MPAA chief Chris Dodd and other supporters failed to actually address the highly-publicized concerns of online activists, sticking to a tired line about copyright protection and showing no real appreciation of how the Web works.
To establish the grievance of this matter, I’m posting an image (courtesy of Wikipedia) of the United States Great Seal, which can be found on the pages for legislation like SOPA and PIPA:
If you were to click on that image, it would take you straight to a little page on Wikipedia, where you find the following text about permission for image use:
Public domain from a copyright standpoint, but other restrictions apply. 18 U.S.C. § 713 states that nobody can knowingly display any printed or other likeness of the Great Seal of the United States, or any facsimile thereof, in, or in connection with, any advertisement, poster, circular, book, pamphlet, or other publication, public meeting, play, motion picture, telecast, or other production, or on any building, monument, or stationery, for the purpose of conveying, or in a manner reasonably calculated to convey, a false impression of sponsorship or approval by the Government of the United States or by any department, agency, or instrumentality thereof.
Essentially, because I’m not trying to pass off this editorial or my blog in general as being sponsored or approved by the federal government, I can use this image without repercussions. But even with such language, it didn’t stop Wikipedia from fearing that the monolithic entertainment industry could see various user-generated images and text as “violations” and penalize the entire online encyclopedia for it.
For my part, I’ve done what I can to honor copyright and fair use practices, trying to attribute copyright to every image I upload for a review and to write down a bibliography for every work examined at the end of each review. I learned in college that it was always important to properly cite my sources and I’ve tried to carry that attitude into all my post-college writing. I believe in being fair to both creators and my audience, to treat them like adults, and to give credit where credit is due. And if someone should feel that I’ve not honored their rights or their work, they are more than welcome to give me their reasons and to hear my own reasons with equal weight.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what free expression is all about.
As a final note, I would like to say that there is a chance at real progress on this issue to be made. Thanks to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the OPEN Act (H.R. 3782; S. 2029) is currently under consideration. Unlike SOPA and PIPA, this act would penalize funding for foreign sites that infringe on US copyright, which would be far more damaging to the criminal element since there’s no point in breaking the law if they can’t make any money off of it. I would encourage anyone who shares my concerns about SOPA and PIPA to write to their Congressional representatives in support of this new legislation and make clear what steps can be taken to ensure a just solution.