As readers and writers of science fiction, we are more familiar than most with the double-edged sword of technology. Every bright, shiny new toy casts a dark shadow, because humans invented it and, most of all, humans play with it.
So, we love our instant access to information through the Internet, the answers to every question at our fingertips through Wikipedia and Google, the chance to connect with friends and family through Facebook, to catch up on missed episodes of our favorite shows through Hulu or davidletterman.com. Ooooh, shiny!
But to all of this there is a dark side: websites like megaupload.com, for example, that steal content from legitimate copyright owners—authors like you and me, moviemakers, television producers, musicians—copy it and make it available to others for a fee without paying anything to the people whose sweat went into creating that content. U.S. prosecutors just shut down the site and arrested four of megaupload’s criminal masterminds in New Zealand, charging them with copyright infringement, racketeering and conspiracy to commit money laundering. According to news reports, several of megaupload’s “sister” sites were also involved in distribution of child pornography and terrorism videos.
The organization behind megaupload is said to have defrauded copyright holders of some $500 million in legitimate earnings. It is only one of hundreds of such sites stealing from content producers every day—every minute—on the Internet. Prosecutors have limited weapons with which to fight them. (Note that megaupload was charged with old-school racketeering, and only because they used U.S.-based servers for some of their work.)
Those of you lucky enough to have published books online have almost no recourse at all against piracy of your work. Anyone, anytime can take a downloaded file, upload it to a “file-sharing” site, and your work is available free to anyone else who wants it. Of course, copyright law prevents such a thing, BUT THERE ARE NO SANCTIONS FOR ANYONE WHO DOES IT. You can spend hours out of every day chasing these thieves down and “asking” them to remove your work from their sites. They may or may not do it, depending on how they feel. All those hours of blood, sweat and tears that it took you to produce your work, and you get nothing for it.
That’s why many of us in the publishing world greeted introduction of legislation in Congress to put a stop to online piracy with hope. The Stop Online Piracy Act in the House of Representatives and the Protect IP Act in the Senate were the first attempts to craft some sort of response to the rampant rip-offs taking place all over the Internet. Much of the media attention to the bills focused on the threat of piracy to the movie and music industries, and, indeed, the bills had the support of the Motion Picture Association and the smaller Creative America nonprofit association of industry workers.
But the legislation was just as important to those of us who hope to gain from the revolution represented by digital publishing. Without some sort of real handle on piracy, epublishing—either by an online house or self-publishing—will never be truly equivalent to traditional publishing. After all, there is little danger that some burglar will pull up to a warehouse and steal 20 percent of your inventory of paperbacks before they are sold. Or hit your publisher’s accountant in the head and take 30 percent of your earnings. But there is every possibility that an online thief will upload your book and take a huge chunk of your potential earnings from you. And the better your book is, the more potential there is for theft.
Our hope for some help from this legislation was short-lived, however. Howls of “censorship!” from some of the cyber-industries' biggest dogs put an instant stop to the efforts of Congress to do something about online piracy. Google and Wikipedia led the way with protests last week, but most online big names chimed in, claiming SOPA and PIPA would clap the Internet in the irons of censorship. Really? I had no idea Google and Wikipedia relied so much on pirated information. Maybe, naively, I thought most of what I was reading (and using) was uploaded with permission by the authors themselves. Maybe I’ll go back to using the freakin’ library.
Or maybe the people who run Google and Wikipedia could take a look at this problem and become part of the solution. If SOPA and PIPA go too far, as they say, then they should take a hand in crafting new legislation that gets rid of the bad guys, while preserving aspects of information sharing that are legitimately useful. (I still know how to use a card catalog, but—do they even still have card catalogs?)
Because we have to get rid of the bad guys. Congress has now canceled its vote on the bills, SOPA has been withdrawn, but Congressional leaders still seem open to examining the issue. With everyone working on it, perhaps we can come up with something sensible.
As the parent of any toddler knows, too much freedom is just as bad as none at all. And as I believe Thomas Hobbes once said, a life without a social contract is “nasty, brutish and short”. Living on the dark side is no way to live.
Information for this posting drawn from an article by Eric Engleman and Laura Litvan, Bloomberg.com
What can I say? It’s January, it’s cold and dark, and progress is slow. This quote says it all:
Write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.