Deja Vu All Over Again

22 01 2012

I have been in the thick of music piracy off and on for nearly a decade. No, not as a pirate, but rather as one who researched the subject. My colleagues and I measured student attitudes and piracy behavior at three universities about five years ago, during the height of the RIAA lawsuits and web shutdowns of flagrant violators.

And you know what we found? Students thought that piracy was all wrong, but were also fearless and didn’t give a flip. Yes, even at a private, Christian university. Basically, it was “do as I say, not as I do.” And so they did.

So when Megaupload was shut down last week right after the SOPA debates and Wednesday’s voluntary blackout by many popular sites, I had to wonder if maybe the feds were sending a little message.

Megaupload is an enormous repository of “shared” copyrighted content, and is multinational in organization. The only mistake they made was using a few servers in the US, which gave our feds authority to pull the plug on the whole thing. Never mind if the long arm of our law had to reach all the way to New Zealand to reel in the scofflaws.

Now let me make it perfectly clear (in my best Nixon impersonation) that I am stridently opposed to piracy of any intellectual property. I do not care how often it happens, or how easy it is to do it. Wrong is wrong. Last semester, there was a graduate student at my university who had the audacity to plagiarize one of my online lectures, and submit it as original work. I felt violated. Academically raped, if you will.

And Megaupload is basically just a much higher-tech version of the Napster we had at the turn of the century. It matters not to me that certain celebrities came out in support of Megaupload. The fact is pretty simple: Megaupload provided the electronic environment in which people could willing post and share content for which they had no authority or rights to do.

While I fully support this shut-down, I must also confess to still being unnerved by the proposed wording of SOPA. While it is now stalled, it will no doubt raise its (ugly) head once more in the future. Basically, SOPA puts the burden of compliance on every website owner. Anything that is deemed to violate intellectual property rights would give the feds the authority to enact a complete and total shut-down.

Like if you (wrongly) posted a wedding slideshow on YouTube and used your favorite song as the music bed.

As it stands right now, YouTube has been able to steer clear of legal issues because courts have agreed the burden of proof is on the copyright owner, not the website owner. Viacom has fought this battle long and hard, the result being that Viacom must do its own policing, and then request that YouTube remove IP-offending clips. With 48 hours of new content being posted to YouTube each and every minute, it is physically impossible screen everything.

Which brings me to my point. If a site is without doubt a willing participant in the illegal distribution of IP-protected content, I have no problem with shut-downs. Megaupload was all about sharing music and video that was (and is) protected. But YouTube (and your blog, my blog, etc.) are not in this business. And that’s where the long arm of our law needs to stick its hands in its pockets and stay the hell out of our business.

Yes, it makes it hard for copyright owners to have to diligently scan the web for pirates. I’m sure that composers, performers, actors and producers likewise feel sick when they see their art being handed out freely. Looting while the store is open is just plain wrong.

And fortunately for me, we have sanctions in academia against plagiarizers. Never mind that I wasn’t actually making any money on my brain droppings. It was just the principle of the matter.

Somewhere, somehow, we have to find that comfortable place whereby the feds can do their business while not meddling in ours. Because, if I do accidentally post something that isn’t mine, I don’t want to find myself staring down the barrel of a federal rifle.

As for Megaupload, its owners will probably be trading their fancy clothes and cars for prison blues. I am happy to pay for the content I consume, and I hope you are, too.

Because if SOPA ever gets traction, you might find yourself sharing a cell with Mr Kim Dotcom. Download that and think about it.

Dr “Seen This All Before” Gerlich



One response

22 01 2012

I hope it doesn’t get so bad that you will get into trouble for minor infractions, especially those that are not intentional. Take for instance a person who downloads an image from Stock Photo Exchange. This is okay because this site features royalty free images. However, assume that the person who uploaded this photo stole it from a third site. Which party is at fault? The uploader, Stock Exchange, the innocent downloader, or all three? Our economy has so many problems that I hope the Feds concentrate on these problems instead of situations like this. I do understand closing Megaupload, but I can’t agree with punishing innocent business owners that are only attempting to market their business, contribute to the economy, and create jobs for other Americans.

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