Monday, November 28, 2011

SOPA is the wrong answer, but the question remains.

Backed and prodded by the motion picture industry, Congress is trying, once again, to allow content providers to protect themselves and build sustainable online business models.

Unfortunately, like other past attempts, the Stop Online Piracy Act goes too far, giving the government unnecessary and unhealthy control of the Internet and otherwise putting too much power in the hands of too few people and corporations.

What the law is trying to get at are web sites that enable or assist in copyright infringement. One would think this is a good and obvious objective, but the law is breathlessly being called censorship by a lot of organizations. As written, the law’s critics might have a point.
          
But something must be done. As it now stands, if someone streams a copyrighted movie (or allows it to be done) on his or her web site, the process of trying to stop the theft (after all, isn’t that really what it is?) is cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive. In trying to streamline that process SOPA goes too far, giving the U.S. Department of Justice unnecessarily broad powers.
          
Some also convincingly argue that the law’s language circumvents the due process rights of the accused. Beyond that, there are compelling concerns that the bill has various technical flaws and is at odds with the fundamental architecture of the Internet.
          
So, SOPA isn’t the answer. But something needs to be done, and not every attempt to come to the aid of content providers can be seen as censorship. In the long run, the Internet will flourish if content providers, large and small, have free market incentives to produce content and make it available. That means they need to be able to make some money.
           
It’s not just Hollywood that has an interest in this. Newspapers like the Post Register have a stake in our country’s Internet laws.
          
The quality of content, more or less, often is proportionate to how much it costs to create. If a content provider – say, a newspaper – goes to significant expense to create some unique content (what we used to call “news”), it needs to have a way to earn that money back, plus a little (what we still call “profit”).
          
Advertising alone does not pay those sorts of bills. Subscriptions alone won’t do it, either (unless, of course, you have exceptionally high-quality or high-demand content – so far, only the pornography industry has succeeded there). Some kind of combined advertising/subscription model is the most likely.
          
Such a model, however, doesn’t work if anyone can take your content and post it for free as they wish. That’s what SOPA is trying to address. It’s the wrong answer, but the current situation isn’t sustainable.

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