Saturday, January 21, 2012

SOPA, PIPA and The Megaupload Thing

Well, whoever has been put in charge of riling up the online masses certainly managed a threepeat this week what with the shutdown and blackouts of various sections of the interwebs in protest against the online piracy bills sailing through Congress and the quite dramatic seizure and shutdown of Megaupload and the arrest of a number of its luminaries in New Zealand followed by Anonymous disrupting the web-presence of the DoJ, FBI, and various parasitical entertainment corporations.

All in a week's online fun, isn't it?

I haven't followed all the intricacies of the online piracy bills, so I won't address them directly, but it seems to me that if the DoJ can command foreign agents (not just in New Zealand, apparently) to round up whomever they designate, and can on its own and in collaboration with others seize whatever pelf they choose in whatever amounts they can find, on accusation alone, and, further, can destroy one of the most popular websites in the world, again on accusation alone, then the bills in Congress are simply redundant. The Government already has the power to do whatever they please, apparently at the command of certain entertainment conglomerates, and there's nothing you can do about it.

That seems to be the "message" being sent here to all and sundry, far and wide.

Your internet operation exists on sufferance alone.

I used Megaupload infrequently but occasionally, because I could sometimes find things there that I couldn't find anywhere else, not even from corporate sources. This is the value of this kind of file sharing. People have stuff that you may be looking for -- or related to what you are looking for -- and they are able and willing to share it through sites like Megaupload, much as a neighbor or library might have done prior to the advent of the Internet.

This is not "piracy" by any stretch of the imagination.

I'm so old, I remember a time before the Internet and all its filesharing sites and the controversies surrounding them. It wasn't as easy as it is now to do independent research or to find interesting diversions from research. But it was certainly possible, nonetheless, and copyright issues rarely arose.

Imagine, if you will, a newsstand in the Bygone Era. They still exist in a somewhat truncated form. There was one in San Francisco I visited frequently when I lived there in the 1970's; it had a vast array of periodicals and publications, from all over the world, and I would sometimes stay in there for hours browsing the racks, reading freely from whatever caught my eye or interested me. I would usually buy one or two periodicals if I wanted to keep particular articles at hand -- I still have some of them -- but most of them I just put back on the shelf, as did pretty much every other customer.

I'm looking at one of my bookshelves as I write this, and I'm remembering where some of these books came from. Some were purchased at that news stand in San Francisco back in those days, some were books given to me by relatives or friends well before or after that, some were purchased second hand for 50 cents, some were mail-order, some are college texts, and so on. In other words, they have been acquired over decades from all kinds of sources, and some of them are now fairly rare and difficult to come by.

Some were purchased at standard or discount retail, but many were not. Quite a few were not purchased by me at all. They were purchased by someone else and given to me. Or I bought them for a few pennies at a thrift store or from a discard bookrack on the street or at a library sale. In other words, the copyright holder was only paid once, if at all, for these books. And at a library or newsstand, I could read anything on the shelves without paying a fee to the copyright holder.

I could share any of the copyright material in my possession -- no matter how I acquired it -- with anyone at any time without running the risk of arrest or seizure for copyright violation, and the copyright holder had no right to payment when I did so.

What I couldn't and didn't do was claim someone else's literary or artistic work as my own, and I certainly never tried to profit from someone else's literary or artistic work. But I could if I wanted to -- without violating copyright.

I own a lot of paintings and books, some of which have a market value well beyond the price I may (or someone may) have paid for them originally. I may sell those items for whatever I can get for them in the market, and assuming a profit in the sale, that profit is mine, not the copyright holder's or the original artist's.

I may never have paid the copyright holder or artist for these books and paintings, but I can profit from them freely -- except that I cannot legally claim copyrighted literary or artistic work as having been created by me if it wasn't. And I wouldn't do that anyway.

In addition, anyone who wishes and who I give access to can view any goddamn thing on my shelves they want to, and if I let them, they can have it for whatever purpose they choose -- without payment to me or to the original copyright holder.

The same is true of my entire recorded music collection, all the 78's, 45s, the 33 1/3rds, all the CDs, all the DVDs. No matter how I acquired them, in other words, anyone I give access to can listen to them. They can watch any movie I have on tape or DVD. It's no violation of copyright, nor is it even remotely piracy, to do so.

What I can't do -- and wouldn't do -- is republish copyrighted works as if I owned rights to them. I can pass on and resell books and other copyrighted material I own, but I cannot print copies of copyrighted books and sell them or make new recordings of copyrighted music or videos without a license to do so.

Since the advent of the InterTubes, however, some copyright holders have decided that every view by every viewer on the Internet must be paid for. The informal or formal sharing such as has long been done in homes and libraries is somehow piracy when it is done on the Internet. Same with the selling of material: you can sell a copyrighted book or recording on the Internet through eBay or whathaveyou, but apparently you cannot charge to view or listen to a copyrighted book or recording on the Internet, nor apparently can you make it available to view or listen to over the internet for free, nor even link to it in some cases, unless you have a license without being accused of piracy.

This situation is absurd.

From what I know of Megaupload and other similar sites, the site provided a platform for people to share with others all sorts of copyrighted and other material that they had access to, for free or at a very small charge (for faster speed not content.) To me, this is exactly what I can do with printed and recorded material in my home, any time I want, and without having my property seized for doing so.

Somehow, back in the Old Days Before the Internet, copyright holders managed to get by without charging every viewer or reader or listener every time they looked, read or listened to a copyright work, or by so restricting access to copyrighted material that it couldn't even be referred to without a license (as has been the case with AP news stories from time to time). They managed to survive even though purchasers of their works could do anything they wanted with them -- including re-sell for a profit -- without owing the copyright holder a damn thing. They even survived the advent of public libraries, book fairs, reading circles and so on. How did they do it?

But now, provide a platform for people to easily share copyright material on the Internet and you'll be subjected to arbitrary arrest and seizure of all your property, goods, and chattel. Download some copyright material via this platform and you might be subject to criminal prosecution yourself.

This is copyright control gone crazy.

I realize that the argument is that filesharing through services like Megaupload is akin to unlicensed republishing, since the work can be distributed widely rather than passed on in individual copies (that someone purchased at some point) and that such distribution is thought to diminish the value copyright holders derive from their product. But many lines of evidence show that's not the case. The wider the distribution, the more familiar the creator/author's work becomes to a far wider audience, and that can easily lead to a much higher value than it otherwise might. Many creator/authors are actually in favor of Megaupload and other file sharing sites because they do allow works and their creators to become much more widely known than they otherwise might. The ease with which one can gain access to the work is the key.

It might be "unlicensed republishing" if someone is literally pirating and making money off the work, but for the most part, they're not. Filesharing is free or very low cost to users. The works being distributed are generally (though not always) attributed appropriately. Those who make money off filesharing make money off the service itself or off of advertising, not off "unlicensed republishing" of copyrighted work. They are not stealing anything from copyright holders, they are in many cases enhancing the ability of copyright holders to make even more money off their works. This is the newstand and lending library model in hyperdrive. Copyright holders should love it.

The gross authoritarianism of the SOPA/PIPA/Megaupload Thing is its most troubling aspect to date. What was done to Megaupload and its people I think was meant to terrorize those who engage in "unlicensed" anything. The implication being you're next. And there's nothing you can do about it. The US Government can go anywhere in the world and do anything they want to you, and they will.

They don't need SOPA and they don't need PIPA; they'll just do it, and you are powerless in the face of such determination. They can and will seize everything you own. They can and will shut down your websites and deprive you of a livelihood. You can do nothing about it. And they will do this on behalf of an increasingly mindless corporate sector that seeks not simply profit but endless revenues by coercion, compulsion -- and government enforcement.

And people wonder why there is a revolt under way...

[Note: I left out any discussion of the file storage aspects of Megaupload, and the loss of that storage seems to be the factor that is currently raising the most ire among users, since file sharing is still possible through other sites. A lot of large files that were being kept at Megaupload so as to free other space are now gone, and most of these stored files were never available for more than very limited and usually in-house sharing. In some cases, valuable proprietary files -- copyright material owned by the user -- is now inaccessible because of the disabling of Megaupload in its entirety. Depending on exactly what has been lost -- and by whom -- this situation could have extraordinary repercussions.]


  1. I think the answer here is that SOPA and PIPA were an internal battle among the moneyed interests, while the Megaupload case was the United States government against a relatively small corporation that had pissed off Disney, Warner Brothers, et al. The unpleasant reality that they both illustrate is that when the moneyed interests bark orders, the government scrambles to obey... and the only thing that can stop them is intervention by other opposed moneyed interests. SOPA and PIPA are intended to give the media sector primacy over the Technology sector, with the force of law behind it. The moneyed interests will be content if the executives at Megaupload are arrested for technical violations of various laws that don't create legal precedents to use against Youtube and the like.

    This isn't the first time I've seen something like this, I refer back to the "Analogue Hole" legislation. Which was a huge unfunded mandate on the consumer electronics industry, requiring them to "solve a problem" that was likely unsolvable. Imaging if your camcorder automatically shut down if it was in the same room as video or audio from "The Little Mermaid" was playing in order to prevent you from video taping it and you'll get an idea of how fanciful this proposed law was.

    Ulitmately, the large consumer electronics industry balked at the fanciful and unworkable desires of Michael Eisner, and they carried the day.

    As to Megaupload, I can compare their fate to Bleem! a company that was legally working to destroy a business model that Sony were fond of. Sony defeated them with Barratry... the judges, not corrupt apparently, kept ruling in favor of Bleem! but Sony would come up with new grounds for suing until Bleem! ceased to exist. Not as dramatic as the Post 9/11 version, but just as effective in the end.

  2. I'm still waiting for another shoe to drop. In essence, the Authorities already have effective control of the internet, basically have had it all along. The periodic cyber-wars between interests, and between the government on behalf of certain interests against others on behalf of themselves, look a lot like gaming just for shits and giggles as much as for power.

    But the Megaupload thing has really seemed to make some people angry because their personal material was lost and may not be recoverable.

    I looked up one of my old websites the other day, haven't looked at it for years, and haven't updated it for more than a decade. A lot of stuff that I created is gone now, vanished, poof! Because the host of that material is out of business or something else, who knows. It's just gone. But strangely, a lot of stuff is still there. It's like a time capsule...

    Odd sensation.

    Meanwhile, people who lost projects and their own creative material stored at Megaupload are spitting mad...