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SOPA: the sad but honest truth

The fight against SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, may be one of the most important fights ever waged on the internet. It threatens to change the course of the web’s development, and not for the better.

Given the impact this dark and misguided legislation would have on the internet economy, it’s no surprise that many are coming together to do what they can to ensure it doesn’t become law.

The media is starting to pay attention, and SOPA supporters like GoDaddy are seeing that such support comes at a cost. These things provide some hope that SOPA will be defeated.

Unfortunately, however, the discussion about SOPA is incomplete.

Lost in the furor over what legislation like SOPA would do to the internet is an inconvenient fact: many of the individuals and companies fighting against SOPA are indirectly responsible for its creation.

Let me explain.

Big Content (record labels, movie studios, etc.) has always had a difficult relationship with technology. Tension existed well before the internet and it will likely always exist. The internet, of course, significantly increased that tension because it created challenges never seen before.

The ability to digitize a piece of content and distribute it around the world in an instant at almost no cost obviously had profound implications for Big Content. Wholesale, consumer-driven piracy never before possible, for instance, became a reality.

In an effort to protect rights holders without making it impossible for online service providers to operate, we got the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998, which lays out a takedown notice process rights holders and service providers are required to adhere to. The problem, of course, is that when the definition of ‘service provider‘ was established, nobody in Congress could conceive of all the online user-generated content services that might fall under its definition of ‘service provider.

Flash forward to today: Big Content says the DMCA isn’t strong enough; there’s just too much infringing content being uploaded all the time and it’s impossible for the takedown notices to work. In effect, the process becomes a pointless game of whack-a-mole.

The law is the law though, and services like YouTube have been successful in defending themselves using the DMCA. The problem, however, is that in following the letter of the law, these companies didn’t seem to realize the inevitable next step: if the law wasn’t working for Big Content, Big Content would simply make sure the laws were changed

Let’s be honest: lots of upstart user-generated content companies have simply turned a blind eye to copyright infringement. The DMCA was on their side, and they weren’t going out of their way to do anything they technically didn’t have to do.

Perhaps in some respects that made sense, but the general antipathy around copyright by the startup community has been short-sighted.

This antipathy could prove to be a fatal mistake. SOPA may or may not pass, but you can be sure that even if it doesn’t, it won’t be the final word on this matter. The internet is going to be more restricted over the next decade.

Big Content, supported by its big money, wants a more tightly-controlled internet. And it’s in luck because the bureaucrats who write laws want a more tightly-controlled internet too, albeit for different reasons. That’s bad news for everyone else.

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