SOPA and the Inconvenient Copyright Truth

SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) is the current issue at the forefront of technology and internet enthusiasts due to the risks it presents to the online industry. However, many of the views presented are, to say the least, lacking in balance. Herein, I will discuss the SOPA issue as well as the serious problem of Copyright on the Internet.

The bill has received a strong negative reaction from the technological community, with GoDaddy, Wikipedia and now even Obama opposing the act. Even Matt Cutts, a member of Google’s search Quality team, has stated his opposition to SOPA 1. However, with such strong opinions on either side it is hard to get a balanced perspective that is not essentially fence sitting.

Why SOPA is Good

One of the major drains on the Internet collectively is the way in which poor quality, unoriginal content that is essentially just a copy of other content, if not an outright copy, consistently makes its way to the top of Search Engines. Take for example the following news related example, the sort of example that particularly seems to infuriate Rupert Murdoch:

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. organization pays quite a lot of money to hire a journalist in a foreign country, such as Libya, to report on a dangerous situation. This costs the organization quite a lot of money and the journalist both works hard and risks a lot. The end result is that News Corporation has a fantastic inside scoop and publishes that scoop online. Immediately, a whole series of other people on the Internet copy the content, paraphrase it, and then promote it better than News Corp is able. It may be that they hire cheap foreign labor, that they game systems such as Digg or Facebook, or that they simply know the SEO game better and have more backlinks. The end result is that they steal other people’s work and reap the benefits of doing so.

Now, this example is a constant issue for online publishing. Google did help improve the situation a little bit with the PANDA update, getting a few innocent people along the way, but overall it is still a severe problem crippling the potential of the Internet. To add further, movies, television and music is often uploaded for free and easily accessible through a range of Google services such as YouTube.

Google is often highly dismissive of the claims Rupert Murdoch makes against their services, but his claims against Google are near identical to the claims Google made against Bing. Murdoch is accusing Google of benefiting from stealing his organization’s work, and Google accused Bing of benefiting from stealing their work. Google can argue that they do not have the intent to profit from the copyright infringement, but to what ends do they go to rectify the situation? Do they give any profit earned from advertisements on sites or videos that were copyright infringements to charity or the original copyright holder? Perhaps back to the Adwords customer? I suspect strongly that they do not, so at the very least they do profit from the illegal distribution of copyright content and could no doubt do more to rectify this.

Why SOPA is Bad

Despite the aforementioned strong argument in favor of SOPA, the primary issue with it is implementation. The matter can be illustrated with another example involving Google:

Google’s search bot crawls roughly 8 billion pages, a task simply impossible to realistically achieve through human reviews. Some of that content may contain copyrighted material, with the search bot simply not being technologically capable of identifying copyrighted content from general content. The only solution to this is for Google to hire a huge base of people to sort through the content, or risk being potentially blocked as a result of SOPA. This in turn essentially makes Google untenable as a concept.

The problem with the SOPA bill, as illustrated by the aforementioned example, is that it does not take into account the primary benefit of profiting from copyrighted content: it is easy to copy. There is little issue in creating a whole series of sites, uploading near identical copyright content, and showing some advertisements on those sites. Google and other hosts have no legitimate way of keeping up with this. As search robots mature and perhaps become able to identify the bulk of copyright content, such as copyright movies, something like SOPA may be a little more tenable. However, at the present time video content is largely described by the person who uploaded it and is subsequently easier to hide. The bill simply is not realistic and would greatly hamper legitimate, innocent and productive information sharing online.

Conclusion

In issues such as these, the debate is not a matter of which is right but which is the lesser evil. In this case, the anti-SOPA side certainly seems to be the ‘lesser’ evil but it is far from a clear win. Google and Wikpedia undoubtedly profit, if not financially in other ways, from information that they do not have the rights to. Both could no doubt do a lot more, and if nothing else the SOPA issue should serve as a shot across the bow for the Information Technology world. Copyright is a major, major problem for the Internet, and Google is the primarily facilitator of the stolen intellectual property trade, even if that facilitation is not desired.

Reference:

Cutts, Matthew 2011, ‘I need your help–please. Call your congressperson?’, in http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/sopa-protect-ip/

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