You know it is evil because Rupert Murdoch supports it. We're talking about the Stop Online Priacy Act (SOPA) and its sister, Protect IP Act (PIPA). It is getting the internet industry all fired up, and has emerged as the next big skirmish between old and new media.
Old Media are the guys and gals who want to protect the content in dispute, and New Media are the guys and gals who have figured out how to make money out of that content, but not necessarily with the Old Media's permission, hence the problem.
Protests against the legislation in the US which opponents say will have a chilling effect on free speech (or at the very least on free content), seem to be gaining traction. MSNBC reported this morning that, “Supporters of the legislation in both houses of Congress appear to have backed off, the Obama administration has expressed concerns with the legislation, and an internet blackout slated for Wednesday is picking up supporters.”
Now, Evil Rupert knows which way the argument is heading, and he doesn't like it. As he tweeted this morning, “Big bipartisan majorities both houses sold out by POTUS for search engines. How about 2.2 m workers in entertainment industry? Piracy rules.”
On the other side of the debate, Wikipedia is going all out (literally) with a threat to shut its website down for a day on 18 January (US time). So is Reddit. Google, which has to worry about things like investors, and making a profit will use its homepage to register its opposition.
In the US, it is still only the 17 January, so if you want to know about SOPA there's still time to pop over to Wikipedia and read about it. Or, I guess we could just cut and paste Wikipedia's content, because that's totally cool, right?
Wikipedia writes: “The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), also known as House Bill 3261 or H.R. 3261, is a bill that was introduced in the United States House of Representatives on October 26, 2011, by House Judiciary Committee Chair Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) and a bipartisan group of 12 initial co-sponsors.
“The originally proposed bill would allow the U.S. Department of Justice, as well as copyright holders, to seek court orders against websites accused of enabling or facilitating copyright infringement. Depending on who makes the request, the court order could include barring online advertising networks and payment facilitators from doing business with the allegedly infringing website, barring search engines from linking to such sites, and requiring Internet service providers to block access to such sites.”
The criminal sanctions in SOPA are significant. For example, unauthorised streaming of copyrighted content can get you banged up for five years — but only if you are a repeat offender like, for instance, the directors of YouTube and Facebook, and oh, me on my Facebook page.
Now Grok may be a copyright bandit of the highest order in his private capacity*, just like everyone else on the internet, but here's the wicked and unpalatable truth. SOPA might be over the top, but something has to give because information wants to be expensive — that's the second half of Stewart Brand's famous observation that everyone conveniently forgets.
In his previous role as associate publisher at the Australian Financial Review, Grok banned Google spiders and introduced digital rights management to stop the content from being cut and pasted. And he erected the world's most bodacious pay wall, which in turn allowed him to charge the world's most outrageous advertising rates.
Despite this contrarian philosophy, subscriptions grew at one per cent a week for almost two years. These rules all unwound after he left, and traffic growth immediately stalled. Go figure.
And he knows a thing or two about copyright arguments having lost a very expensive one in the NSW Federal Court in 2010.
It's possible, for instance, that this article has already been scraped and republished by a third party, who is farming Google search ads against the content, in contravention of IDG Communication's copyright. And don't get us started on residual copyright which your humble scribe still owns. Grok wishes it wouldn't happen as he'd like IDG to make money on the content it commissions from him. On the other hand, if we are being honest, Grok's ego (always fragile at the best of times) is sated by the knowledge that maybe more people receive his weekly wise entreaties this way.
But you can't take ego to the bank. Bottom line, there has to be some protection for content creators which involves some sanction for copyright theft. But banging people up for five years is probably not the answer.
Instead, lurking deep within this debate is a million dollar idea. Sooner or later someone will find a way to give content creators control over distribution — or at least over the decision to distribute in a way that lets everyone continue to go about the business of making money (if you live in the supply side of the street), or lets you spend all day on social media sharing talking dog videos (if you're everyone else). Something that looks a bit like iTunes, for instance.
Tech's latest drip feed
Finally, for the tech addicts amongst you, the Valley has thrown up a new blogger base, called PandoDaily. Normally, this wouldn't register much of a murmur, but PandoDaily has some serious backing.
It was launched by Sara Lacy who worked at Techcrunch when it was still cool, before Adrianna Huffington and AOL ran Michael Arrington out of the bunker. PandoDaily has attracted some serious marquee investors, including Arrington. Lacy's former colleague, who is obviously a supporter as well as an investor, announced Pando's arrival on his Uncrunched website. Uncrunched writes: “She’s raised an amazing round of funding from Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel, Tony Hseih, Zach Nelson, Andrew Anker, Chris Dixon, Saul Klein, Josh Kopelman and Matt Cohler, all investing as individuals. Also investing, are a handful of seed funds including CrunchFund, Greylock Discovery Fund, Accel’s Seed Fund, Menlo Ventures Talent Fund, Lerer Ventures, SV Angels and Ooga Labs.”
Grok will be adding it to his regular early morning roll call, along with Mashable, Uncrunched, ReadWriteWeb, Gigaom, Business Insider and Techcrunch (at least for the time being).
This guy Grok used to know (12 years ago) used to edit the Australian edition of The Industry Standard, which at the time was the standard bearer for the emerging dotcom sector, and for a while the most successful magazine in the history of the world. It went from zero to $240 million in 18 months and alas, from $240 million to zero in six months.
Except for the bit about all that money, Techcrunch came as close as any title I've seen since to capturing the vibe of The Standard, the madness, the joy, the intensity and the skepticism without cynicism. But then, after the purge, the magic evaporated. Whether fault lay with Huffington, Arrington or AOL, or more likely all of them to some extent, doesn't matter. Since the schism, Techcrunch has drifted back to the pack, sans mojo. If PandoDaily can recapture just a glint of that edge, it will be worth the effort.
Andrew Birmingham is the CEO of Silicon Gully Investments. He hacked his first code in 1981 — a For & X loop in Basic saved to magnetic audio tape — and started writing about tech in 1994. He has never quite shaken the monkey from his back.
*Disclaimer: For legal reasons Grok denies he is a copyright bandit of the highest order.