The purpose of having a blog, as we all know, is to complain about stuff in an acerbic fashion without proposing solutions. Today, we’re going to talk about SOPA.
SOPA, as we all know, is a bill going through the the House of Representatives in the United States right now. It is intended to stop online plagiarism of intellectual property of various sorts, and proposes implementing this by allowing the police to delete Wikipedia, shoot internet service providers on sight, and detain potential suspects without trial indefinitely. No, wait, that was something else. Well, you get the general idea. It’s not a very well thought-through bill and I hope it fails.
SOPA inspires me to become grumpy about two things. Firstly, I’ve heard several times that this bill is being forced through by the film industry, who are incapable of waking up to a reality of digital distribution. And, of course, Viacom, Warner Brothers et cetera are all supporters of SOPA. It’s certainly true that these companies stand to make money if SOPA passes. But the list of companies that oppose SOPA isn’t a list of companies that have the best interests of the glorious internet close to their cute little altruistic hearts. It’s just an equivalent list of organisations that will lose money if this passes. It’s the companies who’ll have to spend a ton of money vetting user content, screening their output and adding infrastructure for reporting and monitoring. Facebook, Microsoft, Google, et al. The fact that some of these companies had the muscle to black out a chunk of the internet on January 18th is something of a confusing message, but I think we should disregard the corporate sponsors on either side and think about the bill itself.
The second thing I’m grumpy about is the fact that there’s far too much online piracy, and the death of this bill will probably mean the continuation of that. People justify ripping off films, music and software because they’re just taking it from a big company and they’re all bastards anyway. And I can see why that justification is socially acceptable most of the time. But this rampant stealing from “the man” has left people my age with a similar disdain for intellectual property rights in general. How many of us have needed a picture of two rabbits having sex for a work presentation, Googled “rabbits having sex“, taken the first image and stuck it in the presentation? Sure, it probably belonged to someone and they had some blah on their site about attribution but it’s only a presentation and, hey, they put it on the internet for heaven’s sake, what do they expect? My generation is habitually stealing this sort of content with only the merest hint of shame.
What I only really realised this week is that people younger than me are doing this with no idea that it could actually be wrong.
My friend Doug takes pretty nice photos. He doesn’t do it professionally, and he states on his web page that you can use his photos for noncommercial purposes as long as you give attribution, and should contact him for commercial use. He’s a nice sort of a chap. I suspect his total income from this has been less than the price of a nice lens. Doug doesn’t go off looking for stolen copies of his photos, but he’s a good enough photographer that he or his fans regularly just come across them.
Doug’s most stolen photograph is probably this one. It was turned into this by a gentleman, who unashamedly added a copyright message for himself and then posted it all over the internet. This week it was posted on one of those “funny thing every day” Facebook pages – Doug spotted it, and pointed out that it was his stolen picture. The usual mixture of YouTube-style comments (from both sides) followed, but what really struck me was a comment from the original poster who was incredulous that someone could be so “up-tight” about “A FUNNY PICTURE POSTED ON THE INTERNET”. This hit a raw nerve for me – I was kind of okay with us having a society that ripped off each other’s internet content the whole time, but we’re breeding a society that has no awareness that this is even wrong.
Ten years ago or so, I used to occasionally search for plagiarised versions of my own web site. I’d send them an email asking them to link to my actual site as well, and they’d normally reply saying they were happy to. I thought I’d have another look today, so I searched for a reasonably distinctive phrase which appears in my definition of “bollocks”. Rather disappointingly, my own site is the third result after copy-pasted versions on The Urban Dictionary and DictionarySlang.com. Other highlights were a Facebook page which seems to consist of nothing other than unattributed chunks of my book, several copy-pastes of swathes of my site content and the rather glorious version of my entire paper book that the Chinese search engine Baidu has, complete with a handy reader app, some colour added and “Mr_doody2004@yahoo.com” carefully written in the footer. Sorry to disappoint, ladies, but this is not my email address.
Shall I mail all these people asking them to attribute me? Probably not, because there’s every chance these days that these are people who are genuinely unaware of such a thing as copyright (well, except for Baidu). If I did this now I’d probably get incredulous replies wondering why on earth I’d try to shut down funny stuff posted on the internet.
People ripping off Doug’s photos and my book doesn’t really make a difference to the world. Although we both make a little money from our enterprises, we’re not trying to make an income and we’d both still do it if there was no money at all. But what about my sister, Joanna, who is trying to start a career as a professional photographer? What about my friend Nick, who makes a living writing online Excel training?
As I mentioned towards the beginning, I have no solution to this problem. Maybe it’s not SOPA, but we need something to teach our kids that going to a web site and hitting Ctrl-C is the same as going to the library, selecting a book, taking it home and starting typing from it verbatim.