Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why our Internet Industry is wrong on SOPA

I have worked for three Internet startups. First one (biggerboat.com, Santa Monica) drove traffic towards legal music sellers like iTunes and Amazon. The second (guruji.com, Bangalore) was 'allegedly' told by investors to shut down the music product and change the business model, after a leading music label T-series sued and later took police action against the company.

Now in my present company (inagist.com, Bangalore), we are bootstrapping and talking to VCs and Angels, who I'm told, will be wary of investing in startups that host user generated content because of SOPA (we legally use tweets according to Twitter's terms and conditions).

Now why I think our industry is wrong about SOPA?

We all write code and some have patents for inventions in computer science. Many of us prefer opensource software for personal use and at work. But many of us do work for companies that sell copyrighted software. This incidentally is not unlike the movie or music industry. Scores of artists do not mind if their work is shared and distributed as widely as possible, for free. But there are many artists and their employers who do want to sell their work. Their pay checks depend on such sales, just like ours.

I think, we as an industry are not doing enough to protect the rights of innovators in other industries. But we are up in arms when the government, which issues the patents in the first place, is trying to enforce those patents. What is wrong in allowing the Justice Department to try and stop traffic towards websites which prima facie, are actively infringing the rights of others? Remember this is legislation primarily aimed at websites hosted outside the United States and infringing the patents of US citizens and corporations. The Justice Department will still be seeking court orders to block websites.

One of the arguments made against SOPA is the collateral damage internet startups may suffer. Think about this. Who is in a better position to identify and weed out pirated work from user generated content hosted by our startups? The software engineers who can write code to do this or the movie/music industry which either has to employ scores of people to manually identify or use some software company's copyrighted product (?!) to do the same?

Can't we be more responsible as a business? If we can identify pornography, phishing and spam, why not make the effort to verify if the uploaded content is stolen? Infact some of the measures can be very trivial. If you sign up to a Gmail account (from India atleast), you have to provide a phone number to which a PIN is being sent. Youtube can very well ask the uploaders to identify themselves. Such a trivial step might be enough to instill fear in the minds of Indians who upload scores of stolen Indian movies/music onto youtube. Somehow I'm reminded me of this xkcd strip.

Ofcourse, we can do a lot more to identify copyright violations, using machine learning for example. Infact every single startup that hosts user generated content, is right now telling its investors that they know how to analyze such content and recommend products and ads! Including our company!!

But when it comes to SOPA, the onus is on the content owners to safeguard their work all across the Internet! This needs to be fixed. Really, would you rather keep a vigil against your pictures from being stolen and uploaded on porn sites (as allegedly claimed by some Bangaloreans here) or would you want the websites and the authorities to handle your privacy with lot more care?

Some people argue that SOPA proposes to give draconian powers to the authorities. I beg to disagree. A stolen movie/music hosted on a website is a crime in progress. When my house is being burgled, I'll surely call 911 and expect the police to come and stop the burglary if possible. Remember that the goods stolen on the Internet can easily be replicated and forever remain there. The Justice Dept action must be swift in order to be effective.

Funny how our industry operates. No other industry abuses the patent system like we do, filing frivolous software patents. Or spending a whopping $12.5 billion allegedly to shore up one's patent inventory. But we want rights holders in other industries to take care of themselves! or patronize our safe harbors. Surely Steve Jobs, who revolutionized the way we consume legal music, must be happy being dead.

ps: changed the Software Industry in the title to Internet Industry, becos it turns out many companies including Apple and Microsoft are infact supporting SOPA through their lobby group Business Software Alliance.

1 comment:

  1. Most people understand, at least on some level, the obvious truth that "intellectual property" is not property. If you duplicate it, theft has not taken place, because nothing has been *taken* from anyone.

    It is potentially hypocritical to support patents but reject enforcement attempts. Even in this case, I think you're missing the point -- AFAICT, SOPA doesn't respect "innocent until proven guilty" and its penalties are just too large. But since patents and copyright are not, in fact, valid property claims (regardless of their present status as government-protected), SOPA does, *in fact*, represent an huge additional step against the freedom of the people.

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