I have written three books, and I still get royalty checks from my publishers. I open the envelope typically every six months to find money that rewards me for my original work. It’s like someone is printing money and sending it to me. Although my royalty checks are printed from a rather small printing press, there is great satisfaction in creating intellectual property and through that skill receiving compensation for it.
But what if one of my books suddenly appeared on some rogue Website? “Hey, wait a minute, you can’t do that! You’ve stolen my property!” Or, what if some group in, say, China republished my book and made it available for much less than my book?
These are some of the issues behind the House of Representative’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the U.S. Senate’s version of the same issues called Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).
Those opposing these bills in Congress are not suggesting that we support piracy or steal intellectual property. Rather, they believe that, as written, these bills-while protecting intellectual property and preventing piracy-could end up becoming one big censorship engine with far-reaching negative implications for society.
Remember the discussion about “Death Panels” during the debate about Obama Care? These bills would set up processes whereby review panels (government agencies or even private review boards) would judge which Websites are “illegal” and shut them down or which factories to close because they are generating pirated CDs, DVDs or books.
The problem with this solution is that it’s not far from censorship: Some with power can wage war on those they don’t like and use “invasion of intellectual property or privacy” as a means to control others. How about if only “certain allowable results” were allowed in Google’s or Microsoft’s search engine? Who’s to decide?
So, what’s the solution to the problem? How do you establish laws or systems that protect intellectual property while at the same time not allowing censorship to wage war on some but not others? How do you protect artists who create great songs, producers and directors who create great movies, programmers and developers who create great Websites, and authors (and their publishers) who create great books?
The problem is more difficult to solve. Here’s an example. Let’s say I go to Barnes & Noble and buy “Killing Lincoln” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. (It’s a fascinating read, by the way.) But I know a Civil War history buff, so I give it to him to read. Innocent enough. We’ve all done that.
Or, let’s say I buy a CD of a popular artist like Adele. I then rip it into iTunes and sync it with my iPhone and iPad. No problem. Then, my friend says he loves Adele, so I give him the CD. I don’t need it any longer, so what’s the harm in giving it to a friend? In each of these cases, the fact is that the actions have actually pirated someone’s intellectual property. But society doesn’t generally get upset when someone does this on a small scale and doesn’t do it for financial reward.
We generally allow everyone who buys a book, CD or DVD to have some personal distribution rights to share it with a few friends. That’s because there isn’t intent to mass produce and distribute the work or make money through the process. For example, Apple gives everyone the right to share a purchased song or album on five computers.
Ways to Approach the Problem
I believe there are a number of ways in which we can approach solving the problem of protecting intellectual property and preventing economic gain from piracy. Here are a few:
- Digital Rights Management (DRM). This is where the intellectual property is wrapped with security so that anyone can gain access but only those who have paid can use the property. This has been tried a number of times in music with poor results. Technically, this is great, but logistics and broad implementation have proved difficult. Perhaps we can put together a new form of DRM that will work and protect intellectual property.
- Taxation. In this approach, a tax is placed on all access to content so that it doesn’t matter if someone steals intellectual property as long as the tax is collected on the distribution of the property. This ensures that artists and those who create intellectual property get paid from those who access their property. Since thieves don’t like to be taxed, they find ways to go undetected.
- Value Added Services. This method is currently the one that seems to be gaining popularity. With this method, the original intellectual property is given away free but is surrounded by additional valuable services in which money is collected. A music site might offer free streaming of music but also offers other services that, in effect, pay the artists who created the songs.
- Embargo. Here, the site that is attempting to distribute stolen intellectual property has an embargo created by both government and private industry so that outsiders can’t easily get access. This is close to censorship as someone or group has to determine which sites should be under embargo, although with an embargo, the site is not ever actually shut down.
- Throttling. In throttling, Websites that distribute illegal content stay live, but access to them is slowed down. Or the books are still printed, but the trucks’ engines are throttled to a very slow speed. Obviously, this is very difficult or, in some cases, impossible to manage. Most colleges do this today to manage access to sites that distribute rich media.
I call on President Obama (or Mitt Romney if he becomes president) to convene a council of smart people from Hollywood (movie and music producers), the publishing industry (authors, their agents and publishing industry), Silicon Valley (Google, Apple, Facebook and others) to use their knowledge and experience to create a way (law and governance) that will protect intellectual property, prevent piracy and not act to censor right versus wrong.
We have to reach a point whereby access to intellectual property remains unlimited but illegitimate use and financial gain from such use are prevented.