Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

SOPA - don't fear the streamer

Anyone who uses the internet - and since you're obviously reading this blog, that includes YOU - is by now aware of the ill-fated SOPA, the US's attempt to destroy the web. This rightly detested law would have given the US the power to shut down any website found to be violating copyright, which would have killed this blog just for the banner alone.

Why would anyone want to do such a thing ? Is it because the US government is deep in the thrall of those with money - i.e. the music and movie industry ? Yes. Is it because that industry is EVIL ? Well... partially. But mainly it seems to be that it's because that industry has had about 20 years to adapt to the reality of the interent and utterly failed.

Back in the Mesozic Era, cavemen would use cassette and VHS tapes to record all their favourite music and videos. This took a very long time, but that was OK because they had nothing else to do except hunt mammoths, which was even worse. It made sense to have a copyright law preventing cavemen from giving copies to their friends, because the level of copying was so low that no-one actually noticed.

With broadband internet, things are different. The ability to freely and instantly copy information with no errors is easily as big a game changer as the invention of recorded music, and should be treated as such. Naturally, people have become quite taken with this. You can't possibly expect people to carry on buying overpriced CDs or DVDs when the free alternative is much better.

Unfortunately the corporate thinking has completely missed the point, and is determined to stick with using copyright laws that haven't made sense for well over a decade. This is exemplified by the truly bizarre law that allows public domain works to have copyright reinstatedIt's not -quite- as mad as it sounds. If something is public domain in one country but not in another, then this crazy law might work if going between the countries required a crew of a dozen stout men and a long sea voyage. But when information is freely and instantly shareable, it's just plain ludicrous. As I've previously stated, restricting information based on where people live is verging on racism.

"Arrr ! We'll bring ye back files the like of which ye have never seen !"
The most frightening case is surely that of the UK student threatened with extradition to the US for creating a website that can find "pirated"* content. This is legal in the UK but not in the US. Now if he was planning to burn down the White House and mutilate Barack Obama's dog, or vice versa, one could see the case for extradition. But he's not. He's helping people watch TV, for goodness sake. What kind of country sends its citizens to foreign prisons for helping people watch television ?!

* It's not piracy at all, of course, it's copying. If real pirates did this then they would have sailed the seven seas stealing treasure but also leaving an identical amount of treasure behind. Somebody should write to the Somalians and tell them this.

All that's needed is for the music and video industry to do no more than accept reality, and no less than change their business model to adapt to it. They've already tried the reverse approach and found it doesn't work. The idea that "piracy" is cauing lost profits must be absolutely rejected. In an age of free information, it's simply untenable. It's not only movies and music that are failing to adapt : a recent article suggests that mobile phone companies have somehow "lost profits" because of free alternatives.

This is nonsense. You might as well claim that people who grow their own food are causing farmers to lose profits and should be fined for farming rights violations, or that people who talk to each other face-to-face are causing losses to phone and internet companies. Profit loss is entirely the wrong mentality. Rather, increasing profits can only come from developing better ways to deal with this new reality, not fighting "pirates" - it works spectacularly well for Google and Facebook, which are both free yet worth billions.

It isn't even as though cinema has become unprofitable. Avatar made $2.7 billion, which should be more than enough for even the fattest investment banker. Low-budget movies like Paranormal Activity are equally capable of enormous profits. "Piracy" is no longer the case of boarding a boat and stealing all the treasure. In fact it's preventing the treasure from getting on the boat at all, thus saving the public from having to pay the extortionate shipping fees.

So these people copy things from the rich and then give those copies to poorer people... wait a minute...

Ah yes. I thought so.

(except they don't even steal what the rich people have anyway, making them just plain nice)
Finally, the music industry, which started all this nonsense by shutting down Napster, needs to stop telling people to stop sharing things. That's just bad parenting. Not so very long ago, musicians got by without record companies or even earning royalties. I can't help but wonder that if the music companies invested their lawyer's fees into developing an innovative new business model, we might all be better off.

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