Yesterday, the Internet world sent a message loud and clear: Keep your grimy mitts off.
I am a firm believer in the protection of intellectual property rights. When I write a book, it belongs to me, not just anyone who can run a copy machine or copy and paste on a computer. The law has evolved to put reasonable boundaries on such rights. For example, if I sell you a paper copy, you can lend it to someone, you just can’t run 100,000 copies and sell them. Likewise, you can’t make it available for free on the Internet. You can, however, use small portions for certain things, like in a classroom for educational purposes.
Before the advent of computers, it would have required a substantial investment in a printing press and a distribution system to go with it in order to pull of a serious violation. Hollywood and Rupert Murdoch are right to be concerned about the ease with which movies can be given away for free–movies that required millions to make. The problem is that these two laws include a heck of a lot more than IP protection.
If a foreign site were to offer The Dark Knight Rises for free, these laws* would require search engines to block access. In some cases, the law would require ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to block access to foreign sites that host pirated material. In other words, the bill requires private businesses to enforce a law that, in its present form, is vague, arbitrary, and draconian.
Though the analogy is not perfect, this is similar to the seller of copy machines having to monitor what gets copied by the customer after the sale. My book, for example. No one argues that Xerox should be the policeman in this context, so why would Google be forced to do the dirty work for the government? Besides, they already voluntarily take down copyrighted material after verifying a complaint.
Just as methods of protecting proprietary software evolved in response to pirating, so will there emerge methods for selling copyrighted material that work without the ham-fistedness of SOPA and PIPA. And this really is the point. The Internet is just about the only thing government has not screwed up yet. When authorities start telling search engine providers and site hosts what they can and cannot refer to or host, we will have started ruining the one things in our lives that shines as an example of near-complete freedom. Let’s not go there.
*At least some versions that are being considered. The House and Senate bills have not been reconciled yet.