Tuesday, 27 December 2011


The US Constitution declares that "The Congress shall have Power ... To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."  The House of Representatives is considering exercising this power by passing the so-called "Stop Online Piracy Act" - SOPA for short.  There is strong and well-reasoned concern about the technical requirements of the proposed Act, outlined here, and internet companies are near-unanimous in their opposition.

There's no doubt that SOPA would damage the internet; the question is what would be gained in return.  The media conglomerate Viacom has produced an online video putting its case.  They seem to be trying to persuade us that there will be no more SpongeBob Squarepants without new copyright protections online.  I don't believe them.  Successful films, television programmes, and books are more profitable than ever before.  J.K Rowling is past half-way to being a sterling billionaire.  The truth is that the content that's attractive to 'pirates' is the content that's already enormously profitable.  This Act is aimed at making very rich people even richer.  It is not necessary for the promotion of making children's television programmes that there should be no unauthorized Rugrats toys, nor does songwriting depend on the ability of Warner Brothers to collect royalties for online performances of Happy Birthday.

Intriguingly, SOPA has the support of AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.  It says it believes that SOPA would increase employment.  In many circumstances Trades Unions add balance to the unequal relationship between employers and employees, but they are essentially economic actors who are interested not in employment in general but in the employment of their own actual and potential members.  It would be possible for a government to raise funds by auctioning the right to collect tolls on roads, and the Amalgamated Union of Tollbooth Operators would be pleased to support it.  That doesn't make it a good idea.

It's possible that if Warner Brothers made even more money out of Harry Potter and Happy Birthday it would spend more supporting potential new hits from otherwise struggling artists.  I'd be interested to hear from any such who believe in this.  Pending that, let's not break the internet: I'm willing in exchange for that to allow media multi-millionaires to struggle on with what they've already got.

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