I’m wearily aware that the following is going to mark me down as wrong-headedly fascist and/or a pinko liberal intellectual, and dangerously uncool either way, but...
I’d be interested to know what proportion of the people most stridently against SOPA – by which I mean individuals, not organizations — earn their living (and support their families) though the creation of intellectual copyright that is easily distributable over the Internet. My guess is very, very few of them. Once you’ve seen your life’s work thrown up for free on a few pirate pits — or ‘social sharing sites’, as the more brazen like to style themselves — you’re far less sanguine about the free-for-all approach, and more open to the idea that someone, somewhere might want to do something about copyright theft.
At the moment there’s precious little authority exercised in the area, and it’s left to the individual to protect themselves. I’ve had to fill in any number of forms to prove to sites that I have the right to ask them to stop ripping off my work — biting my lip at them claiming the moral high ground — and the bizarre thing is that every time I do this I feel like a spoil-sport, as if I’m being unreasonable or mean or dull. The prevailing ‘everything should be free’ ethos means that to stand up for your copyright comes across as oddly small-minded. Mean-spirited. Uncool. Maybe this is why some big-name creatives are prepared to throw their unconsidered weight behind this kind of knee-jerk movement – along with the fact they know that an important portion of their target audience unthinkingly supports the cause, and they don’t want to alienate them.
Why are people really so vehement about SOPA? Two reasons, I suspect. Some people will just go nuts about any hint of potential governmental control over their lives. They assume that every single measure that means they could, theoretically, be prodded with pointy legal sticks means that they definitely, definitely will be. Even the reasonably level-headed analysis of the bill here condones this way of thinking. But this is ridiculous. The idea that Big Business or the Government will hunt you down because you’ve uploaded a video of your wife singing a (copyrighted) song is fatuously alarmist. They won’t – not least because all but the most technologically inept entertainment companies will be content to view this kind of thing as free marketing.
There’s a monstrous egotism at work here, too, in the notion that governments enact laws specifically to get at YOU personally. They don’t. You’re not living in an all-powerful totalitarian state, guys. You’re really not. The US government doesn’t have the time, resources — or, I’m sure, the will — to chase down every single man jack of you for trivial offenses. I’m sorry to break this to you, but they simply don’t care that much about you, and I doubt they have the slightest desire to close down FaceBook or YouTube either (though the latter does have a breezy approach to copyright, as does Google). They’re trying to defend pre-existing laws, not imprison everyone or close down the bloody Internet. They can’t even shut down all the pedophile sites, a task I think we can all get behind — so do you really think they’re going to take you or your favorite mainstream sites down for your apparently innocent acts? This is the same kind of lunatic conspiracy thinking that believes the government has been able to keep it secret that the moon landings were faked for fifty years. They’re just not that powerful or efficient or deadly... except in your minds.
Yes, there may be dubious motives mixed in with the good, and government must always be subject to close and considered scrutiny, but that doesn’t make opposing SOPA some kind of glorious rah-rah-for-the-common-(wo)man crusade that can only be 100% right and just, regardless of the supporter’s motivation, regardless of self-interest, regardless of a massive prevailing degree of ignorance as to what it actually means. The government is supposed to be on the side of laws, isn’t it? Copyright is a law too. If they don’t defend that law in the new kind of social space that the internet represents, where will the laxity end? What other laws will be let slide on the grounds that they might impede the rights of Internet users to do what the heck they feel like? What about your right to privacy? You care a lot about that one, don’t you? What makes it so desperately important for the government to defend your rights there, but not defend others’ rights to be paid for their intellectual property? Is it perhaps that you’re a consumer rather than producer of such properties?
There may be hidden agendas in the bill, and the proposed law may (or may not) be excessive in its current formulation. I don’t know. I haven’t read or understood every single word of the proposal – and neither have you. You’re getting hot under the collar because someone on Twitter said you should; and I’m doing the opposite, because I’m a contrary, bad-tempered bastard who’s tired of people on the interweb getting shouty and self-righteous after barely half a second’s thought.
But I suspect that the real, visceral and unspoken reason people are getting so exercised about this is because... well, because they’re stealing, and they know it. Virtually everyone on the Internet is making use of copyrighted materials without paying for them. Everyone uses torrents or cheerfully passes MP3 files to their friends or downloads pictures or pdfs or e-books or software. The vast amount of porn circulating the web is another example. It doesn’t count in most people’s minds — because it’s a dodgy, seedy business anyway and so who cares about the moral claims of the people who produce it — but it’s still copyrighted material. Virtually everyone I know engages in one or more of these pastimes, and most have some kind of moral accommodation ready-prepared. They buy enough stuff legitimately – what’s the problem if they help themselves to a few more things on the side? Big business makes enough profit – where’s the harm in these apparently victimless crimes? Downloading a CD of songs for free might make you buy the artist’s next release, right? It doesn’t actually cost writers and artists anything if you download their stuff, so it’s okay, right? As someone who’s living in the US but still paying a British Television License fee, I could make a reasonable case for downloading BBC shows from some ropey corner of the net, if I so chose.
And so on, and so forth, and of course a little bit of this is not the end of the world and of course a degree of laxity with regard to sharing materials is part of how the net works and what makes it the extraordinary resource that it is — and both I and the US government understand that.
But the bottom line is... you’re taking things without paying for them. You wouldn’t expect to be able to talk your way out of shop-lifting in Safeway, and there’s no difference on the net. Except that it’s a lot easier to get away with, and the punishments have so far seemed nebulous and faraway. SOPA makes them seem a lot closer. That’s what’s scaring people, the idea that some nasty teachers are stomping into the playground and spoiling everyone’s fun. The reality is that no-one has the time or cash (law enforcement and legal proceedings cost a lot of money, and the government has budgets like everyone else) to hunt down the average Internet user, or close down every site that could technically fall foul of a psychotically super-heavy reading of the bill. It’s okay, everyone. You’re safe, and so is your favorite social networking site, and no-one’s going to come knocking on your door for ripping your mate a few songs. But hopefully the organized large-scale thieves will not be safe, and speaking as someone who’s had his pockets picked more than a few times, that’s kind of alright with me.
The Internet is like some huge pub, dodgy goods so constantly passed back and forth that we’ve forgotten you used to have to pay for them — and many of us like it that way, because we don’t earn as much as we like and we want more things than we can afford. We wouldn’t enter such a pub in real life, of course — or support a second-hand book or record store proven to be full of stolen goods — but if it merely involves pressing a button in the comfort and safety of our own homes, then... Amongst other things, SOPA threatens this, and I suspect that’s what the vast majority of knee-jerk naysayers are reacting to: not the idea that the US government will try to take Wikipedia off the air. Because it won’t. Come on, you know that. So don’t pretend they will, just to make it all more exciting. Two months from now you’ll be hopping mad about something else, and I’ll be wearily asking some other bunch of freeloading assholes if they’ll take down the pdfs of all my novels, pretty please.
Anyway, just a few thoughts. I’m sure that — in addition to being terribly unfashionable — they’re just as ill-informed and muddle-headed as everyone else’s. But that’s the Internet for you: behind the shiny main streets of the big-name stores and social networking behemoths, it’s mainly just back alleys of shady bars full of knock-off goods, where people talk an awful lot of bollocks. Including me.
[And I promise my next blog will be cheerful. Been whining my ass off here lately. Blame work. Normal service will be resumed.]