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Summer holiday television can be pretty dire, so I was almost grateful when the SOPA melodrama broke out while I was back home.

By way of exposition, SOPA (or the Stop Online Piracy Act) is a piece of American legislation aimed at preventing the distribution of pirated content (but also such things as counterfeit drugs). Its key provisions provide for court orders that will prevent search engines from linking to infringing material, require ISPs to block access to infringing sites or prevent online payment processors from handling payments from sites dealing with infringing material. The aim is to combat sites not hosted in the US and therefore out of the reach of current legislation.

Critics claimed that freedom of speech would be adversely effected by “black lists” of sites. There would also be a chilling effect on user-generated content, with sites such as YouTube or WordPress finding themselves blocked for the actions of one of their contributors. An open letter from constitutional academic Laurence Tribe received extensive coverage, particularly his claim that SOPA would “…undermine the openness and free exchange of information at the heart of the Internet.”

Prominent opponents included Google, YouTube  and Wikipedia, some of which (Wikipedia being the most notable example) blacked out their sites for a day in protest. Just to add to the drama, Rupert Murdoch very publically screwed up his first attempt at a twitter tirade against President Obama on the subject, directing it instead at Australian telco Optus (ironically not without cause, given my last post). And around one holiday dinner table I was subjected to an emphatic denouncement of all forms of copy protection from a teenaged cousin who opined “information has to be free.”

Here’s part of the reason I think the whole thing got out of hand: the confusion of free speech and information with content. I completely agree with the fundamental importance of free speech and that information needs to be available to all. Wikipedia is an excellent example of the latter – it contains factual scientific, historical and biographic information, all of which is a valuable resource and should be freely available to everyone to promote their understanding of the world around them.

A movie, on the other hand, is a performance comprising various forms of artistic and technical endeavour intended to inform and entertain. That is to say, content. Unless anyone can justify the argument that the contributors to the movie should not be paid for their efforts (slavery springs to mind), the “information must be free” argument does not follow. And while my cousin – an aspiring musician – announced in support of his argument that he didn’t care if he was paid for his own artistic efforts, that doesn’t mean all artists must starve.

I turn to the redoubtable Margaret Thatcher by way of example. The Wikipedia entry contains dates and facts regarding her term as British Prime Minister. Compare this to the recent film The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep as the eponymous baroness. While it is based on the same dates and facts, it is content – an artistic expression of those dates and facts. Arguing that The Iron Lady should be protected does not mean that the Wikipedia entry will be deleted.

Intellectual property law has long recognised the distinction between information (which is not protected) and expression (which is). What’s new to this debate are the likes of Google, YouTube and Wikipedia – who have built themselves on other people’s content – resorting to oversimplified “slippery-slope” arguments to protect their own operations. The fact that the other side of the debate is being represented by organisations such as the RIAA – whose boneheadedness has made them so deeply unpopular – doesn’t help.

As a content maker, I will not be told that I can do nothing but sit back and watch my work being ripped off. That’s not to say SOPA is the answer, but nor is cloaking piracy in the sacred vestments of free speech.

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