The MPAA Criticise The SOPA Blackout Protests – Here’s Why They Are Wrong To Do So

Today Wikipedia along with many, many other websites partook in the ‘blackout’ protests against new internet piracy guidelines and acts being discussed in the American House of Representatives and the Senate.

They essentially removed their sites from circulation for a day citing that this could be a regular occurrence under the new proposals. The laws being fought here are the planned Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the contrived ‘Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act’ which provides the ecstatically convenient moniker PROTECT IP, also referred to as PIPA. So there’s a bit of fun amongst all of the legislation after all. That’s nice.

But whilst PIPA has been roundly opposed by internet big boys like Google and Wikipedia it’s the SOPA bill and its ramifications that have been grabbing the headlines. Both acts are designed to stop the sharing of copyrighted content on American computers and servers. The enforcement mechanisms that the bills allow include power over search engine indexing and the incoming traffic from foreign alleged copyright infringers.

Whilst there’s a lot of obvious piracy online that I think any industry could definitely do without (sites like The Pirate Bay are often cited as such) the bills are so invasive and general that their ramifications could be disastrous for swathes of worthy sites throughout the world, let alone the US.

The bill for one could be interpreted as a heavy burden for sites that routinely use copyrighted material within the bounds of fair use policy. Sites like Wikipedia and even The Oxford Student that use copyrighted material under fair use as a matter of course in writing about and promoting ideas and in our case films will be severely affected by the acts.

Whilst HeyUGuys and many other non-US sites may feel the effects of the bill much less it is in no way just America’s problem. SOPA’s supporters cite the bill’s targeting of “foreign rogue websites” as an advantage of the proposed legislation but the definitions and wording of what constitutes such a site is woolly and ambiguous. The sheer room for manoeuvre within the bills as they stand could lead to perfectly innocent enterprises being blocked or diverted from US IP addresses. Such tools would not only lead to widespread censorship but could even compromise the internet’s addressing system.

The bill would also require sites to routinely scour their articles, links or even comment sections for copyright violations that must be pre-emptively removed before action is taken. This is a huge burden for large sites that contain a lot of reader reaction or for small sites that do not have the time or legal nous to search for and identify potential copyright infringement. The frequently lauded ideal of free speech would be severely undermined as sites would most likely close the comment and forum sections of their site or at the very least start to heavily censor reader produced content.

For sites like The Oxford Student for example the bills could cause a direct problem. The sharing of film trailers, film footage, screencaps and other promotional material of ambiguous distributional arrangement could give sites like this massive issues. While such ‘promotional material’ is used throughout the internet on sites that thrive from analysing, reviewing and opining on all things entertainment (often under the copyright constraints that such a brief entails) the incidental use of potentially copyrighted images will cause unnecessary problems for sites that all in all promote the genre within which they work.

For example if I accidentally use a screencap from a film that I assume to be a promotional still, the copyright holder could report the site, with repeat infringement notices probably resulting in The Oxford Student being delisted from search engines and advertising network and payment providers being forced to sever business relationships. If the site was hosted in the US an infringement notice could have the site instantaneously taken down until the offending material is removed on the strength of this mistake.

Whether the copyright holder chooses to report alleged infringement may be down to the nature of our content. If we give a negative review a company may be much more inclined to act than if we give a glowing report of their product. The bills therefore could lead to an all-pervasive paranoia about the source of every piece of incidental property and to the site’s content.

One ardent and powerful supporter of SOPA is the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) who often seek to persecute film piracy with all of the angry shouting that they can muster.

The chairman and CEO of the MPAA Senator Chris Dodd yesterday issued a statement condemning the SOPA ‘blackout day’ protests that have been popping up all over the internet.

“Only days after the White House and chief sponsors of the legislation responded to the major concern expressed by opponents and then called for all parties to work cooperatively together, some technology business interests are resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns, rather than coming to the table to find solutions to a problem that all now seem to agree is very real and damaging.

It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information use their services. It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today. It’s a dangerous and troubling development when the platforms that serve as gateways to information intentionally skew the facts to incite their users in order to further their corporate interests.

A so-called “blackout” is yet another gimmick, albeit a dangerous one, designed to punish elected and administration officials who are working diligently to protect American jobs from foreign criminals. It is our hope that the White House and the Congress will call on those who intend to stage this “blackout” to stop the hyperbole and PR stunts and engage in meaningful efforts to combat piracy.”

Whilst Piracy is a definite problem in the film industry his comments (as do the bills themselves) misunderstand what meaningful piracy is. If one downloads a film without paying for it then in most cases the property holders are deprived of their due fee. This is a crime and should be recognised as such. However if the authorities get all anally retentive about the use of promotional material and the coverage of films on websites that do the industry more good than harm then the MPAA’s comments seem to harm the film industry, not enhance it.

This goes for the websites that cover it too. Whilst I and many others may frequently vent our disdain for certain aspects of our chosen passion our ultimate interest and motivation in the industry comes from a place of love. And without getting all mushy about it it’s the sharing of ideas and the creative energy that comes with ambiguously defined fair-usage policies that keeps us in the game.

When I see a horribly earnest fan made trailer for Twilight for example made by a hopelessly besotted teenager in their room I may scoff and laugh about it, I might even send it to some of my friends to laugh at but either way it is obvious that the person has engaged in a creative pursuit that ultimately edifies and celebrates the magic of film. Yes, they have infringed copyright by distributing the material but the trailer would not harm Twilight’s revenue stream. No one is going to watch what is essentially a promotional trailer and not see the film off of the back of it just because it involves some of the films copyrighted footage. The fair use of copyrighted footage rarely bares any resemblance to industrial concerns and often it seems like creativity’s gain is in no way the industry’s loss.

But it is an industry after all so maybe such considerations are not taken by the studios. Fair enough. But whichever way you look at it the last thing they want is websites getting taken down and bankrupted by needless legal wrangles when everyone involved is just pursuing and promoting their passion, and film itself. I’d like the MPAA to take heed of this. At the moment they seem to be blinkered by the industry monster of piracy when in fact the SOPA not only seeks to stifle the distribution of pirated films, but actually looks to undermine the very creativity upon which the film industry is based.