Now that the SOPA-Opera is quieting down to a barely-audible murmur, I think it’s an excellent time for some deep thinking about the real issue here: how our understanding and acceptance of copycats, remixing, fair-use, originality and especially “piracy” has changed, and what that means for future legislation.
Piracy just isn’t what it used to be. Much of the SOPA debate centered around the refrain of “well both sides agree that piracy is bad.”
What if there were a good kind of piracy, one where both the original source AND the rip-off-artist benefited? The evolution of the web as a creative medium has fostered the growth and evolution of this new type of piracy, and the legal system has yet to catch up.
Put differently, if links are a new currency, and the post-Google universe has taught us that more inbound links are better for business, then copycatting can sometimes be beneficial for the original creator.
2. The recently-release Pinspire, a pixel-perfect knock-off of Pinterest, drew mostly rage from the web community for its shameless copycatting. But with every mention of Pinspire, there’s a mention of Pinterest alongside it. Pinspire is just one of many copies, and the general response to these products, both online and off, is “Pinterest clone”. Pinterest’s position in the zeitgeist is helped, not hurt, by the proliferation of clones.
3. Sh*t Girls Say. Oh, you’re sick of these videos already? And yet the videos keep coming, and keep racking up millions of views. Should the creator of video #1 be pissed that people stole his idea, or psyched that he created a cultural phenomenon?
Some artists do it seamlessly and use it as a tool to create awesome shit. Grantland’s piece said it best: “…as millions of gay guys in leotards on YouTube and a drunk Kanye can attest, [Single Ladies] was one of the best videos of all time.” Should this video not have been made because the concept wasn’t exactly original?
Is it even the place of the legal system to figure out where to draw this line? Many software entrepreneurs are notoriously bitter about the antiquated patent system, and the SOPA fight has demonstrated, for one, that many average Americans will be complicit about “piracy” in the name of free speech preservation.
Erosion of Originality
The ability of the web to disseminate information so seamlessly may have the unintended consequence of killing originality.
But does that even matter? The widespread commoditization of content creation has resulted in different definitions of what exactly it means to be “original”, and I think we, and the legal system, should embrace that at least a little.
Today I called a Senator’s office for the first time.
First, let me say how fantastic it is that when you call the office, a real-live human picks up the phone and can speak to you. There’s no annoying menus, no transfers, no answering machines. Washington, please don’t ever change this.
I was calling mostly to find out why the Senator supports (and co-sponsored!) S.968, aka the PROTECT IP Act aka PIPA. Perhaps there was an argument I was missing — I know how myopic the tech world can be sometimes.
What I got was a reminder of how dangerous this legislation will be, for people who care about:
-freedom of speech
-startups and job creation
-facebook, tumblr, youtube, reddit, 4chan, and any other major site that touches user-generated content
OK so back to my phone call. The first question I asked was “why does the Senator support this legislation?”
The guy on the other end of the phone said: “well, he’s a co-sponsor so he’s not changing his position.”
He must have known why I was calling.
Asked the same question again. This time the reply I got this time was different: “Senator Schumer is in favor of censoring the internet.”
….whhhhhhat? Up until now, most of the statements from congresspeople have done that neat thing politicians do where they say words but don’t actually answer the question. They do the “censorship” dance very well – never say it out loud, but vote for the bill nonetheless. From what I can tell “anti-piracy” and “pro-censorship” are actually the same thing here, though politicians usually argue the former so as not to seem anti-first-amendment. No one has been brazen enough to drop the C-word without hesitation. But this dude apparently had no problem with it. I said again: “So you’re saying Senator Schumer is in favor of censoring the internet?”
“Yes.” He then backpedaled a bit, and mentioned that Schumer is in favor of censoring illegal activities on the internet. But still, the C-word.
I could hear the phone-answerer smacking his lips in the background, grinning and thinking: ALL YOUR CAT PHOTOS ARE BELONG TO US. on a centrally controlled website owned by Viacom.
Next stop: To Kill a Mockingbird no longer allowed in public schools. You think I’m getting hysterical. I am not.
My other objective was to find out the position held by the average constituent who supports PIPA. It was my impression that PIPA was mostly written by well-funded lobbyists and that there aren’t that many Joe Six-Packs who truly support it. But surely they must be out there! So I asked him this specifically. He said: “I haven’t spoken to any consituents who support it.” He clarified that he couldn’t articulate what the average constituent supporter thinks because he hasn’t spoken with any.
I am thinking it is not this guy’s first day on the job, and when I asked how many people had called to oppose he said “a whole lot.”
To summarize: the Senator’s office has received a bunch of calls from taxpayers who oppose the bill, but anecdotally from this dude, zero calls from those who support it.
And yet, the Senator seems content, and unwilling to reconsider his position or meet with the opposition.
“Hello, my name is _________ and I live in ________ (say your ZIP CODE, they need this for their “reports”). I am calling to voice my concern for S.968, the Protect-IP act which apparently Senator (Schumer/Gillibrand) supports. I am extremely opposed to the bill in its entirety and would like to suggest that the Senator reconsider his/her position on the issue.”
That should be enough to get the point across, and make sure that they take down your name and zip code. You can talk about why you personally oppose it (kills innovation, serious technical implications, reddit/youtube/tumblr, the fact that the vast majority of technical innovators have come out against it, etc.)
4. Some more great background reading is Michael Arrington’s piece from June 2010, which is incredibly relevant to this argument: “Here’s How The Government Can Fix Silicon Valley: Leave It Alone“.
Update #1: asolove on Hacker News pointed out that “the people who answer your calls are (likely unpaid) high school or college interns, not “staffers.” They are not the people who research or discuss policy issues, they likely are not very aware of the candidate’s legislative positions…they are not making official statements.”
I would like to point out that this is not a post about Schumer’s “official statements” on this issue, rather simply what I experienced when calling the Senator’s office. I would also like to note that as far as I am concerned, if you pick up the phone at a Senator’s office you speak for the Senator.
Update #2: I spoke on the phone with someone from Schumer’s office who read my post (thx, HN). The caller clarified their position, and I’d like to include a few points here:
1. It’s not just Hollywood – another big issue that they are trying to combat here is piracy related to physical products that are sold by overseas websites: counterfeit chips, pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, etc.
2. DMCA is incredibly effective, but only for the companies that actually comply with it.
3. There have been some changes made to the bill already that take into account the concerns of the tech community. For example, yesterday one of the Senate sponsors said “he will recommend that the the Senate gives DNS blacklisting “more study” before moving ahead”.
4. The tech community is very important to New York State, and so are all the other industries here who support the bill (entertainment, manufacturing), and while the outcry from the opposition has been heard, it is also pretty recent. Back when they were researching the bill, they felt there was a balance of interest between those who were for and against it.
Anyway, I felt like it was important to include this here. I think the bill is garbage and dangerous and legitimate “censorship”, but I very much appreciate the call and the explanation.
Slash Blog is a collection of thoughts about creative technology, mobile product design, new hardware and the future written by me, Amanda Peyton. I am a technology entrepreneur living in New York City working on a new company called Grand St.