On January 18, a number of online search engines suspended operations for 24 hours to protest federal legislation introduced ostensibly to fight piracy. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the U.S. House and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) in the Senate represent the latest action in the conflict between the demands of users for unfettered access to information and the need to protect personal property rights. (While U.S. laws already exist to restrain domestic piracy, SOPA and PIPA are aimed at foreign abusers.)
It is an echo of the music industry’s struggle to protect the intellectual property rights of musicians and composers in the face of unpaid music downloads and file sharing and at first blush may seem a no-brainer. But online protests such as yesterday’s already are eroding initial support for the federal measures.
The subject is a touchy one. How much control is too much and how much freedom constitutes abuse? Absent protected intellectual property and the shelter of the profit motive, what incentive do developers have to devote the months or even years necessary to create online technologies that users crave – indeed require – in our wired and wireless world? After all, everyone – even developers and other creative types – must eat.
Despite first impressions, it is actually difficult to see how the protesters fail to win this one – at least in the short term. Their victory, though, could very well carry the seeds of its own demise if it chokes off or cripples the technologies being demanded.