Tech Guy Rant
Posted on Tuesday, February 14 2012 @ 07:07:41 Eastern
SOPA, the stop online piracy act, and PIPA, the protect IP act, are pieces of legislation recently proposed that the authors claim are intended to stop piracy with a focus on stopping foreign piracy. The original version of PIPA had provisions that would allow the US government to alter one of the fundamental elements of the internet, DNS. If you don’t know what DNS is, it stands for “Domain Name System”, and it is a collection of servers that maintain a hierarchical list of names for websites, like “Google.com” and “usa.gov”. When you connect to the internet, your computer retrieves from your service provider at least one IP address of a DNS server (or you can manually configure your DNS settings). When you type an address into your browser, your computer communicates with the DNS server and resolves the hostname (web address) to the IP address of the server that the hostname points to. Some DNS servers, by design, will forward an IP address to your computer of an ad server if the hostname you typed in isn’t assign an IP address. Most ISP’s do this. A DNS server that strictly follows the standards set forth by the Internet Engineering Task Force does not return an IP address for hostnames that do not exist, instead returning an error (server not found). Google’s DNS servers do this. The DNS alteration provisions of PIPA would allow the US government to alter the list of hostnames in such a way that if a website was blacklisted for perpetuating piracy, the DNS would not resolve to an IP address. This wouldn’t actually block access to the site. If you could find the IP address of the infringing server through other means, you could still connect. This would completely negate the purpose of the legislation and would open the door for people to take advantage of the fact that people would want to have a DNS server that doesn’t conform to the government’s legislation. This in turn would make the DNS system unreliable due to the fact that you wouldn’t know if you could trust your DNS server. You may be connecting to a DNS server that claims to not block any hostnames, but does in fact re-route some hostnames to competing sites.
These provisions were removed from the legislation months ago thanks to many internet security experts speaking out against these provisions. However, the current version of the legislation still allows for the attorney general to arbitrarily force the take-down of whole websites, not just infringing content, without the protection of due process. That means that if the attorney general so decided, Youtube could be brought down entirely due to a single video that contains copyrighted content. The same goes for any for service out there. In fact, even sites that do not contain user generated content can be forced to not do internet-based business with companies who’s sites contain infringing content. That means that Paypal may stop working for a random site , not to mention the cost that Paypal would suffer to make sure that transaction access is blocked for Americans trying to do business with a blacklisted site. This brings up a good point: this legislation would cause several business to spend money on reworking their infrastructure to comply with this new legislation and in turn would cost consumers more money, leaving them with less money to spend on the media that the legislation in question is meant to protect. All of this caused by inadequate legislation intended to protect the rights copyright holders.
But the copyright holders who can or would go after a website for hosting infringing content are the publishers, not the creators. Most artists, musical, theatrical, or otherwise, are forced by economics to sign away most of their rights as the creators in order to gain the financial backing necessary to share their creations. This is whole point of artistic creation in the first place: to share it. The companies that are pushing this legislation don’t care about sharing art, they care about selling it. Now, I’m not trying to say that you shouldn’t sell art, quite the contrary. I think that if people want to experience art, they should compensate the creators for it. THE CREATORS. Not the dozens of hands in the pot that are only there because of the “manufacturing” process that artistic creation has been subjected to for the past several decades. With so many people making money off of one persons art or off of a group of people art, there isn’t much left for the creators. And guess who complains the least about piracy: the creators. The publishers, marketers, and business-people of the media industry, who make more money than the creators, are the one complaining that piracy is killing their industry. But I think their complaints are misplaced and wrong because piracy may not be hurting them as badly as they think. And if it is then perhaps it needs to be hurting them.
If the movie biz lost enough revenue that fewer movies were made, more people who pirate them might pay for them. Pirates, and people generally, have such ready access to movies and music that in order to watch all the movies and hear all the music that one might want to enjoy, one would have to spend very large amounts of money just to keep up. If the number of movies and CDs made would plateau for awhile, and let the economy catch up to the growth the entertainment industry has experienced, these so called pirates might actually buy this media. When supply goes up, demand goes down. Movies and music have turned into a product that is being manufactured rather than being created as art. Then those who are trying to push the creativity of media are being pushed aside by the big businesses because of a lack of “marketability”. I understand the need to be able to make money off of creativity, but at least give the little guys a chance.
As far as foreign piracy goes, chances are the individuals pirating can’t afford the high costs of entertainment and therefore are forced to go through “illegal” channels. As for the foreign pirates who illegally sell entertainment media, they are likely selling it at a price far below what if costs in America. They are taking advantage of the fact that they can obtain their products for free and sell it to people in a price range that their customers can afford. Chances are that the people buying from these illegal businesses would have never bought one of these movies otherwise due to them being too expensive to purchase through legal channels. Some of these customers may not even know that they are buying illegal content. Not to mention, if you cut off the easiest way for these illegal business owners to obtain their product (downloading), they will simply go to the next easiest way: order the dvds from the internet. So unless it gets outlawed to sell, on the internet, a dvd to someone overseas, this sort of legislation does nothing to stop the “loss” that these lobbying businesses experience.
So then there’s the issue of domestic piracy. Most people who illegally download stuff from the internet, do so because they have no interest in buying it. Take for example a piece of software ( or song/album, or movie)… if a person wants the item in question, but for one reason or another is unwilling or unable to spend the money to obtain it legally, their options are: do without, or pirate it. If the person goes without the software, the company that made it never makes any money off of this person. If the person pirates the piece of software, the person then becomes familiar with it and may recommend it to another and may very well decide to purchase it in the future. The point I’m trying to make is that if the company would have never made the money to begin with, pirated content is not a loss of money.
Consider that if a piece of software is commonly used in an industry a person is interested in working in, pirating it may be their only option for becoming familiar with it in order to get into the industry. This would be the case when the software in question is ridiculously expensive. And many of the applications commonly used in most media industries (graphic design, video production, audio production, etc.) are so terribly expensive that the only entities that can reasonably afford it is businesses or schools. So if a potential entrepreneur wants to get into an industry where the majority of work is completed in an expensive piece of software, the person may not be able to developed the necessary skills to even start a business. The obvious answer to this problem is for the individual to procure a business loan. The problem with that is the person may not be able to get approved for the loan due to the bank not having faith in his ability to develop the business when he has no experience in the field.
Let’s look at a music album. If someone likes the artist, they’ll likely purchase the album, go to a show or two, buy a poster, and a order a t-shirt. Then everyone else, who might like one song off the album will just pirate it, and then they might find they really like the whole album and become one if the aforementioned fans. Or they pirate it and find that the one song is the only one they like and is definitely wasn’t worth the cost of the album, end of story. I know that most digital distribution services allow a person to buy one song at a time, but then many people don’t want to buy one song from an artist who has only made one worthwhile song (in their opinion).
And then there are movies… blurays are expensive! So are DVD’s. So are theaters. If someone can’t easily afford a trip to the theater or a blue ray or even a dvd, they may pirate it. And they may really enjoy it. And since most pirated copies are of low quality, the person may decide they want to watch this film in higher quality. So they go buy it. And then they recommend it to a friend. This is a good thing because otherwise the person would have never spent the money at all. The only people who cause any harm by pirating media are those whose sole means of acquiring entertainment is through piracy. So here’s an idea, make it so that its not piracy if you buy the media within X time period. But the real matter at hand is that people who will ever spend the money, do so whether the option to get it free exists or not. Just like movie theaters vs dvds. Those who go to theaters go regardless of the fact that they can go spend the same money and have it forever… mostly.
Now, I’m not trying to defend the breaking of the law, I’m just saying that perhaps the businesses of the media industry are overreacting a bit.
If the era of big businesses running the entertainment industry has ended, then let’s let it die and avoid the potential for sacrificing liberty just to maintain the status quo. But the status quo is changing. This is evidenced by the insane number of independent bands popping up, producing professional quality albums without a record deal, and the number of independent films being produced. Some businesses are supporting peoples desire to make their own entertainment while others are trying to make it ever more difficult to do so. Presonus, for example has a whole line of audio recording hardwares priced so that most musicians can afford it. This takes power from the big records labels and gives it to artists. Even iTunes makes it a pain to be an independent digital entertainer because of the cost of getting music into their store. Not to mention that Apple only pays a very small royalty to artists. And oh, look, Apple supports SOPA and PIPA.
If we look at who actually conceptualized this legislation we’ll see that it is not the actual creators but rather it was the publishers that came up with the idea. The publishers control how much money the artists (musicians, actors, directors, writers) receive from sales and if the claimed losses from piracy were recouped, what incentive would the publishers have to make sure the artists receive just compensation when the artists already receive most of their compensation from other avenues. It has become standard practice for artists to receive next to nothing for their work from sales, and the publishers keep the vast majority of the sales revenue. These points pertain mostly to the music industry where artists survive on revenue form merchandise and concerts. The movie industry can’t complain about how much money they make or lose because they make ridiculous amounts of money anyways. The video game industry could complain if the publishers and hardware developers weren’t shooting themselves in the foot, repeatedly, ad nauseum. The game studios are trying their hardest to keep from getting financially screwed by their publishers and they can complain about piracy, because it directly affects them. Take Team Meat for example, their game Super Meat Boy was pirated quite a bit. But they asked that people stop pirating it and some of those pirates sent the money for the game directly to the guys that made it and did so because they so thoroughly enjoyed the game.
If we simplify the process of producing content, and remove the extra greedy hands in the pot, the content creators would make more money. It’s the extra hands that are being hit the hardest by piracy because they take the largest share of profits from the revenue pool.
Now that I’ve established that this is bad legislation, let me explain why stopping it from passing will not make any difference. To begin with, this is not the first piece of malformed legislation to be proposed that would affect the liberties of American citizens and threaten the security of the internet. This legislation is the first that has managed to garner a public outcry for opposition, but the only reason that anyone knows about it because half (kinda) of the internet shut down for a day. And although that day may have postponed the inevitable passing of this legislation, it will do nothing to solve the ultimate problem. What is the ultimate problem? The fact that malformed legislation gets proposed by, supported by, and pushed through congress by big business that don’t care about their consumers. The only way to stop this legislation in its tracks would be to boycott ALL companies that support SOPA and PIPA. But that means canceling your television service, avoiding Hulu, Netflix and the like, not buying media at Wal-Mart, and throwing out your iPhone, iPad, i-whatever, basically making your life entertainment-free. This will never happen.
The other way to keep malformed legislation from screwing up our entertainment is to vote for representative that actually have our interests as people in mind, and not the interests of the businesses that lobby for them. But since the candidates that wouldn’t support SOPA or PIPA won’t be supported by the big media companies, people will have to research who they will vote for. With the incredible throngs of misinformed lazy masses that have taken over our country, we’ll likely never get the idiots out of office.
And speaking of lazy misinformed masses, most people have no idea what sort of legislation is up for passing because they either do not care about it because they do not understand how it can affect them or they do not know anything about it because it requires some effort to research it. So unless a paradigm shift occurs in people’s attitudes towards legislation, we will never stop the likes of SOPA and PIPA.
Now that I’ve ranted about how SOPA and PIPA are bad, someone will inevitably wonder why I would be so against legislation that will protect the rights of copyright holders. The answer is this: we already have legislation in placed to protect rights holders. What legislation? The DMCA, or Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed in 1998, “criminalizes production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures that control access to copyrighted works. It also criminalizes the act of circumventing an access control, whether or not there is actual infringement of copyright itself. In addition, the DMCA heightens the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet.” (Thank you Wiki.) But in the DMCA are provisions that keep content servers like Youtube and Comcast from being targeted as criminals as long as these content servers maintain a mechanic through which rights holders can inform them that they are hosting or serving illegal content. This is the Safe Harbor Clause. Because of the different provisions of the DMCA, there is a good balance between protecting rights of copyright holders and content servers. It allows for stiff penalties for anyone pirating content and still allows for fair use, i.e. use in criticism and parodies. It works, so lets not screw with it.
I am no advocate of breaking the law, but when we begin sacrificing the potentiality for innovation in order to protect the profits of big businesses in industries fueled by innovation, there is something wrong. We need to, as the people of this country, educate ourselves and maintain a certain level of weariness of our political representatives so that their personal desires don’t outweigh their political responsibilities. That said, I leave you with a quote by John Lennon: “Music is everybody’s possession. It’s only publishers who think that people own it.”
Rant = Done.
This article was written by my colleague, Andrew McDaniel. It was posted with his permission. For more articles like this and our weekly podcast check us out at, http://everythingstentative.com/
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