SOPA Legislative Debate Needs Leadership and Fresh Ideas

NEWS ANALYSIS: The current contentious debate over legislation to outlaw online piracy seems to be defined mostly by the refusal of the parties involved to move away from their all-or-nothing approach.

There's no question that the current situation surrounding the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) currently foundering in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the similarlystalled Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. Senate, is a mess. While both bills seem to have little chance of passage in the current Congress, especially now that theWhite House has announced its opposition, the fact is that they will probably come back to life later.

This likelihood of a return isn't lost on the Internet community. The highly popularWikipedia free online encyclopedia plans to go dark on Jan. 18, along with Reddit.com and some other sites. The idea is to make their lack of availability obvious to Congress and to voters. Sadly, these protest outages, while sort of dramatic, aren't likely to affect the course of the legislation. What needs to be done is to find another way to solve the apparent problem of online piracy.

Unfortunately, this is one of those situations in which there are at least two sides, and neither is apparently willing to give an inch. Many Internet activists don't want to change the way business is done now, while most of the recording industry would rather kill the Internet than take any chance that someone might steal a song. Both sides are wrong.

The entertainment media industry, which includes groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), has opposed virtually every technical innovation that has the potential of affecting its vested interests.

These are the same people who tried to stop compact discs; they tried to kill video cassette recorders, DVDs, MP3s, Internet music sales and iPods. This is an industry governed by fear, the total failure to understand any technology more advanced than Edison's wax cylinders and a refusal to acknowledge that their industry can profit from the technology.

The motion picture and recording industries have made vast fortunes when these technologies appeared despite their opposition. CD sales far exceeded the sales of vinyl records. Digital music sales through iTunes and Amazon have made selling music more profitable (there's no manufacturing cost, after all). And there's nothing about sharing music through the Internet that's likely to cost the recording industry millions of dollars, assuming it's handled properly and the industry approaches it as a way to make money by attracting more customers.

On the other hand, the status quo isn't working either. The recording industry has a point that the Internet is being used as a vehicle to steal music, movies and other intellectual property. Too many Internet sites turn a blind eye to overtly illegal activities either because they don't care or perhaps because no reliable, technological mechanism exists to do anything about it. I know this from personal experience.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...