Today, multiple sites across the Internet, including WordPress and the Great Encyclopedia of Earthly Knowledge (G.E.E.K., or Wikipedia) are blacking themselves out to protest two pieces of legislation moving through the United States Congress – the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), which, if passed, could potentially turn back the clock on the evolution of the Internet. These two acts have been essentially written by lobbyists from the motion picture and recording industries, who, perhaps upset that their latest ADD blockbuster grossed only $199 million instead of $208 million, or that their hot new Auto-Tuned tone-deaf breast flaunter’s album hit #2 on the charts instead of #1, are going after any website that does anything with copyrighted content – you could find yourself subject to a lawsuit for uploading a YouTube video of your toddler shaking his booty to Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies.” There are lots of good articles out there summarizing the danger posed by SOPA and PIPA, and I’m not going to rehash them here. What I can’t help thinking as I follow this story is that it all seems so terribly familiar.
Knowledge is freedom and power, which is why oppressive regimes since the dawn of civilization have been trying to restrict it or stamp it out. Without venturing too far down the road of hyperbole, it’s hard not to see this latest strike at the commons as a new link in a long chain leading back to the burning of the Library of Alexandria. But for a second, just for the sake of balance, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the ones pushing this legislation. They are creators of original work who are feeling that their rights are being infringed upon. Fair enough. As a writer myself, I can empathize with that to a degree. I have a novel I am ready to submit for publication, and were I to discover that someone else had stolen it and was making money off it instead of me, I would probably be livid. But it’s one thing to go after a guy selling millions of illegal bootleg copies of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and SOPA and PIPA don’t stop there. I’ve written here about the evolution of remix culture and how it is exemplified by the public reaction to shows like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Remix culture isn’t there to take money from content creators – it embraces their work and applies individual creativity to form something brand new, for the sake of joy, not profit. And SOPA and PIPA take direct aim at remix culture like an H-bomb directed at some microbes on a hill.
The White House has announced it will not sign these bills in their current form. Even if the President were to veto them outright, this issue isn’t going away. Yet listening to the complaints of the MPAA and the RIAA over copyright infringement remind one of the late Jack Valenti in the early 80’s likening the VCR to the Boston Strangler. The movie business survived the advent of Beta and VHS – it grew larger and more powerful, and gave us DVD’s and Blu-rays for our trouble. Home theatre is a thriving industry now. And the record companies survived mixtapes and Napster. What happened was that the doors were thrown open to newcomers of hitherto undiscovered talent who didn’t have to supplicate to the old guard to let their creative voices be heard by millions of people. We are seeing the ongoing democratization of creation, where what you can do is more important than who you know, and the old barriers to sharing your work are dropping away. SOPA and PIPA are an attempt to metaphorically burn the library – but even if they pass, even if they do set us back, evolution can’t be stopped. Creativity always finds a way – and the beliefs of the SOPA and PIPA-pushers to the contrary, the world usually doesn’t come to an end.