The hot button issue in the tech last year was intellectual property. The House and Senate had bills in place with the goal of protecting IP holders could have very destabilized the internet industry. The  key to understand copyright and IP is understanding both sides think, historical context and current landscape of the media industry.


As a primer, I suggest reading The Master Switch by Tim Wu. It will give you a basic understanding of how the industry operates. I have  previous post on the Cycle and the Master Switch as well that provides some light.


Historical Context: The media industry gets paid when you engage with its content in the form of various fees and advertisements. For example the big media companies earn about $16/month per cable subscriber. That is a lot of money. That is per subscriber where their channels are carried. Cable networks started as a way to have lots of niche content and do however the consumer is forced to generally spend a lot of money and buy a big package of channels, most of which they never watch. Each channel gets a carriage fee regardless if you watch. Advertisements and on demand are bonus revenue. The internet is the opposite, you  make money from narrow subscriptions and ads based on eyeballs or viewership.  These are polar opposite approaches. Old media is about distribution and getting paid based on distribution. The internet is about getting paid based on results.


The net impact is that over time, quality on the web becomes evident and the highest quality will get paid but anything in low and mid quality will not pay. Media companies make money based on consistency not quality so there is a fundamental divide in goals. The perfect setting for a fight.


SOPA/PIPA high level discussion: The simplest version of this fight is that media companies in the form of SOPA wanted the ability to be able to take AN ENTIRE site down if they SUSPECT there is copyrighted content without permission. What that means is a media company could say someone shared an illegal link on facebook and take facebook down. The internet companies want freedom of expression and want to make sure they can’t be shut down anytime a big media company sneezes and that there is proper legal process.


Currently, if there is a copyright issue, the rights holder reaches out to the site that hosts the offending material and then it gets pulled down and everyone wins. This is what happens on  youtube today.


Why did this become a congressional issue? Well, there are filing sharing sites and networks that are hosted offshore and exist for no other reason than stealing and distributing pirated content. This clearly is an issue and clearly is illegal. Sites like MegaUpload and networks like Bit Torrent (and Napster, Kazaa, Morpheus, Limelight before them) exist to distribute illegal content for the most part.


The media industry apparently was using these sites which are clearly problematic as a reason to attack the internet with a nuke. Should SOPA have passed, the likely evolution of events would be that all social media sites would be dead, all non conforming sites would be dead, there would no longer be comments on the web and all that would exist would be media industry approved sites with premium content. Freedom of expression would be dead. It would be hilarious. The internet would go dark, no venture money would be invested and media would rule the world once again. Either that or we would become China and need to use proxy servers to access once legal and now illegal sites such as Wikipedia, facebook, twitter etc…  It would just be ridiculous.


I’m not actually sure what’s wrong with most sites today as when media asks youtube to pull down content, they do and it works. Vevo launched to power music video on youtube and life goes on. However what do you do about blatantly illegal sites that will not pull down content? It’s a fair question:

Some middle of the line suggestions:


  1. International treaties. Wherever the content is hosted should pull down the sites within their borders like any other issue of illegal trade.
  2. Ban on advertising on sites deemed to have no other purpose than distribution of stolen goods (I wouldn’t define it as content but as stolen goods) and once a site is defined by a court as having stolen goods as their purpose then advertisers and payment processors can be sued for supporting them. Choke the revenue. Most of the revenue comes from US advertisers and if its US payment processors if the people in the US that would need to process transactions you can easily censure them.
  3. Sites that have a purpose other distribution of stolen goods yet don’t listen to takedown requests within a reasonable time, should be open to go after their advertisers as well. However there needs to be a VERY HIGH standard as it needs to not be able to go after a communication network like facebook or twitter which can’t control all of their content. Otherwise it would be like taking down the phone company for terrorists using their lines. It just doesn’t work.


Overall it’s a tricky issue and one that should be for free speech and expression yet protect investment in copyright. Working together it is one that is solvable with a solution that works for all.