Disclaimer: The following piece does not discuss or debate any particulars of the SOPA or PIPA bills before Congress, nor am I really interested in doing so. It is an opinion essay of 1,554 words. Please do not jump to conclusions or form an opinion until you have read all of them. And please respect the fact that it is my opinion, and my opinion only. Yours may differ. Good for you.
You are a creator. Freedom of expression is as vital to your craft as ink, or guitar strings, or paint, or pixels. Perhaps you desire to create for a living, to make your career and life’s work out of your scribblings and scrawlings and musings, and not be subsisting on hand-outs under a bridge while doing so. That desire may be a constant driving force for you, or it may merely be a latent dream, something you imagine with the same wistfulness as you imagine winning the lottery. Those of you who value freedom of expression have recently become incensed at a pair of U.S. laws that would, in popular opinion, result in censorship, kill freedom of expression and the free flow of information, cripple the internet, and violate the First Amendment. As is often the case, popular opinion is wrong.
Reading comprehension is very important, and fear-mongers and rabble-rousers know that most people have piss-poor reading comprehension, and they capitalize upon it. This is how they know they can write horrifying statements, say they could happen, and most people will breeze over the boring beginning of the statement and capitalize on the horrifying conclusion. Even more horrifying conclusions will continue to be spread like wildfire, with little to no research or fact-checking. As but one example, there has been screaming that SOPA/PIPA would allow the government to shut down websites that host user-generated content without due process. Simply skimming the bills in question would reveal that the enforcement of the provisions of the bills are limited to either the U.S. Department of Justice or an infringed copyright holder petitioning for a court order.
Education is also important, and anyone with a basic understanding of the U.S. legal system (a minimal understanding that everyone living under U.S. law should have) would understand that a judge will not issue a court order without first insuring the other party has been notified of the request. The judge will then hold a hearing to decide whether to grant the court order, a hearing at which the opposing party has the opportunity to be present, and to make his or her own statement. If that sounds like due process to you, that’s probably because it is.
But I digress.
There are two pieces of U.S. law that protect your rights as creators. One is the First Amendment, which states in applicable part: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ….” The second is the U.S. Copyright Act. The first allows you to write, or create, or say, whatever the fuck you want — with limited restrictions and exceptions, which you can feel free to research if you like (that’s the “freedom of the press” part at work). It also means that if someone decides they want to publish your work (or if you decide you want to publish it yourself), the government won’t stop you from doing so. The Copyright Act ensures that once your work has been “fixed in a tangible means of expression” (means “written on a napkin”), it is yours and yours alone. You can sell it, you can license it, you can destroy it. And since the Copyright Act makes your original creation your (intellectual) property, this also means it can be stolen — just as your guitar or your computer can be stolen.
Now: if you’re walking down the street, guitar slung over your shoulder, and some thug walks up, punches you in the face, steals your guitar, and runs — what would you call him? A thief, of course.
Take that same guitar, if you will, record some songs you’ve written, and distribute recordings of those songs at your next live gig for ten dollars each. Now assume the same guy who stole your guitar in the previous hypothetical didn’t actually steal your guitar (What the fuck would he do with it? He’s not a musician). Instead, he managed to get a copy of your CD, and has burned copies, and is selling them on the sidewalk outside your next gig for five dollars each. What do you call him? That’s right, you still call him a thief.
Oh, but that guy didn’t do that either, see. He didn’t actually burn copies of your CD and take all that time to sit out on the sidewalk in the pouring rain and attempt to sell them — that would be a tremendous waste of time and money. What he did was upload that CD to the internet and let anyone who wanted it download it for free. Now you’re not selling any CDs at your gigs because everybody’s already got one, and if you said the guy’s obviously still a thief, you’re three for three, bro — cookies for you.
How do you feel? There’s no need for you to answer that. But reflect, if you will, on the fact that the music, film, and publishing industries are not just made up of celebrities who drive Bentleys and own yachts and spend more on bling than the mortgage on most people’s homes. You focus on them because they’re sparkly and wear shiny things and smile a lot. You focus on them because they want you to focus on them. And when you go to snag a BitTorrent of the latest movie or album, you may reason that Jay-Z or Brad Pitt or whoever already have plenty of money — they won’t even notice one less ticket, one less album, one less DVD sold. And you’re probably, for the most part, correct — if these industries cease to be profitable, these celebrities can simply sell a yacht and live for five years off the interest. But for the bulk of those employed in the entertainment industry, this is not the case. It’s not true for the Third Assistant Recording Engineer who just got laid off, along with the Receptionist and the Courier and Grip #5. It’s not true for the vast majority of artists, musicians, writers, and filmmakers, who pour blood, sweat and tears into their life’s work, only to see the profits fail to materialize because an unsettling number of people believe they are entitled to enjoy this work for free. Filmmakers, musicians, writers, and other artists and creators do indeed produce work to entertain, titillate, provoke, and stimulate you — but they are not slaves — you are not Princes and Princesses and they are not your Court Jesters. They are entitled to be paid.
We complain that the creative arts are not valued highly enough in our society. That music and art classes are being cut from public schools. If you value the creative arts so highly, and you wish for society to reflect that value, fucking pay for it.
I’m not writing this to debate the pros and cons of various provisions of the proposed laws, or to speculate on the efficacy of the various means of enforcement. SOPA and PIPA are not perfect laws, by any means. Parts of them are quite stupid. But there is a key point I feel has been unfortunately glossed over in the debate, two terms that have been unnecessarily conflated. It is true that both censorship and the most stringent anti-piracy law imaginable result in products of creativity being rendered completely unavailable, but there is an important distinction: censorship means something is not available except illegally; anti-piracy legislation seeks to make it so that those things are not available except legally.
Let me be blunt: even if both SOPA and PIPA are passed, you will still have the right to create whatever your little heart desires. Your original work will never be censored; nor will anyone else’s. But they will limit your “freedom” in one important way: if you want to steal music or movies, you’ll have to leave your house and go rob a Best Buy®.
You are a creator. You have a blog, and you post original content to that blog. No one is paying you for your creations. The only recompense you get for your work is acknowledgement, readership, perhaps a friendly critique or a reblog from someone who admires your work and wants to share it with their friends and followers as well. How do you feel if someone copies your work and posts it to their own blog, as though it is their own? You don’t have to answer that either — I already know. I see it far more often than I’d like (since I’d like to see it never). You are outraged. You feel violated. Someone has stolen your work. Of course, this is a slightly different type of theft than illegal downloading — one that involves the thief attempting to pass your work off as their own, something known as plagiarism. But it’s still theft — an ant is no less an insect by virtue of being an ant. No theft is ever harmless. If, as a creator, you want your work to be valued, your time and effort to be respected — pay other creators the same courtesy. If you want to see a film or read a book or listen to an album, fucking pay for it. Support the arts. And maybe, some day, there will still be a market in place for other people to pay for yours.