A mass online blackout protest in January successfully convinced Congress to pull the contentious anti-piracy bills, the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “PROTECT IP Act” (PIPA), from its agenda. But just because these pieces of legislation are down, there is still more work to do to make sure they never rise again.
To help achieve this goal, a group of 75 Internet companies, human rights groups, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs — many of whom helped organize the January 18 blackout — have written a letter to Congress, urging lawmakers to abandon any effort to simply revise SOPA and PIPA, or to curb piracy in a way that ignores the needs and concerns of the Internet community as a whole.
“Now is the time for Congress to take a breath, step back, and approach the issues from a fresh perspective,” reads the letter (full text below), which was written in conjunction with Public Knowledge, a public advocacy group. “A wide variety of important concerns have been expressed – including views from technologists, law professors, international human rights groups, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and above all, individual Internet users. The concerns are too fundamental and too numerous to be fully addressed through hasty revisions to these bills. Nor can they be addressed by closed door negotiations among a small set of inside the-beltway stakeholders.”
Follow the money
The letter goes on to argue a few other extremely important points about the debate that surrounds intellectual property regulation. The first is that, “Congress must determine the true extent of online infringement and, as importantly, the economic effects of that activity, from accurate and unbiased sources, and weigh them against the economic and social costs of new copyright legislation.”
You would think that there would already be solid numbers out there about how much piracy really costs copyright industries, especially music and movies/television shows. But you’d be wrong. As Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute (a libertarian think tank) reports, the copyright industry’s assertion that piracy costs the US economy $200 billion to $250 billion per year, and has eliminated 750,000 jobs, is based entirely on “bogus numbers.” In fact, even the US Government Accountability Office concluded in 2010 that the figures cited by the copyright industry “cannot be substantiated or traced back to an underlying data source or methodology.”
In other words, no concrete evidence of the negative effects of piracy currently exists, at least not in number form. That’s not to say evidence doesn’t exist at all. In the entertainment industry, for example, you’ll find a wealth of anecdotes about how this or that project wasn’t funded because of a fear that piracy would make it impossible to recoup the needed investment. But Congress should not pass laws based purely on incorrect facts and anecdotal evidence.
A thorough, unbiased study of the true effects of piracy would benefit both the copyright industries and the Internet community, as it would provide a solid basis for debate, rather than the muddy foundation of misinformation and hyperbole on which the current copyright conversation is built.
Fair and balanced
Second, the letter argues that “any future debates concerning intellectual property law in regards to the Internet must avoid taking a narrow, single-industry perspective.” Obviously, this is a needed change. It was precisely this kind of one-sided debate that enveloped SOPA and PIPA. During its markup of SOPA, the House Judiciary Committee only bothered to hear from Google to get the Internet industry’s perspective on the bill. Meanwhile, five participants from copyright industries testified. Rep. Lamar Smith, chief sponsor of SOPA and Committee chairman, eventually agreed to hear from technology experts on the impact of the bill, after being pushed by SOPA opponents. But that never happened, as the markup hearings were postponed indefinitely.
It’s clear that the SOPA/PIPA blackout served a much-needed wake-up call to both Congress and the entertainment industry. The game has changed. Whether or not the new face-off grows into the same lopsided monster as its predecessor depends on the Internet industry’s ability and willingness to fight like its life is on the line for years, even decades, to come.
Read the full letter below: