And the award for acronym of the week goes to ... SOPA.
And no, it does not stand for South of the Panhandle, but rather The Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill aimed at curbing online piracy, currently being considered by the House. The bill has been getting lots of attention this week with business and entertainment industries taking up arms against freedom of information advocates.
In case you missed the discussion and want to bone up before tonight's cocktail party, listen to this recent interview on NPR. But if you really want to sound smart, read through these highlights from Forum with guest host Joshua Johnson and guests Rick Cotton of NBC Universal, Fred von Lohmann of Google and independent filmmaker Ellen Seidler.
For people who feel that Internet piracy is one of those things that only affect big companies and rich people, tell us how you think it affects the average person?
Rick Cotton of NBC Universal
You have to take a step back and look at what our jobs and our economy are based on. The US does not aspire to be a low-cost manufacturing economy. We aspire to have high-wage jobs, to have industries that add a high amount of value. Only if we sustain those sectors of our economy can we hope to compete globally and get our economy back on a path toward growth.
This bill addresses not only the theft of digital content, which can extend from books and software to TV, films, and electronic games, etc., but it addresses the rampant sale of counterfeit physical goods from foreign websites, which undercuts many of the high- growth sectors of the US economy.
So what's at stake here is really the long-term health of the US economy. If we don't ensure that the economic benefits of our innovation and our technical invention and our creativity create jobs here, and allow them to be stolen by criminals operating sites in foreign countries, we are truly risking our future, our children's jobs, and our economic health.
NBC Universal, Viacom, Disney, News Corp are companies that deal in billions of dollars in content and that are extremely lucrative and valuable. Talk about what the landscape might look like for companies if these two bills had already been in place.
Rick Cotton of NBC Universal
I want to stress the fact that it also extends to companies like Pfizer, pharmaceutical companies, small companies that depend on innovative machine tools that drive much of the job growth in the U.S.
The other framework to consider is truly the rule of law on the Internet. If these laws had been in effect, one could imagine the evolution of the Internet over the past decade or so would have been a recognition by the user community that lawlessness and theft -- trafficking in stolen digital goods and content -- is as unacceptable in the digital world as it is in the physical world.
What we've allowed to develop is the notion that somehow the Internet is a zone where anything goes.
Turning to Fred von Lohmann of Google, it seems like your concern is that in the effort to catch these pirates, it may also end up doing damage downstream in the channels that pirates do business in, but also that people like me use to live our digital lives...
Fred von Lohmann
That's right. Google has always been a staunch opponent of online piracy. But it's incredibly important to emphasize what a small proportion of the Internet experience relates to these issues. These are important issues –- no question we need to do things to stop this activity. We support measures that would try to address these issues, particularly with foreign pirate sites.
But the issue here is that when government acts, you have to be careful about unintended consequences. We don't want a bill passing into law in America that sends a message to other countries that Internet censorship is a good way to handle your domestic legal issues. That's a direction that countries like Iran, China, Pakistan have already gone down. We don't think it's appropriate for the US to follow in that line.
So you've used the C word, which nobody likes to use in relation to US policy. What about SOPA and PIPA do you consider to be a censoring of the internet.
Fred von Lohmann
That's a very important point. The bills specifically create four new remedies for intellectual property rights holders.
One, the US government would be able go to court and get a site declared as dedicated to infringing activity or theft. Once that order has been issued, Internet service providers would then be required to disappear the web site for American Internet users, -- block the site and make it disappear off the Internet.
The second remedy would require search engines to delete that site from their search results.
Google supports the other two remedies in the bill. Once a court order is issued against a site, you'd be able to cut off the advertising relationships the site has with networks like Google's and Yahoo's and others. And you'd be able to get payment processors to cut off their relationship with these sites.
But the first two –- the site blocking and the search removal, are an echo of the kinds of approaches that more repressive regimes have pioneered.
Rick Cotton of NBC Universal, the aspect of blocking the sites and blocking their businesses –- are both those tactics essential or would you be willing to live with more of a compromise measure?
No they're both really critical. I think that's because Internet users have to recognize stealing and accessing stolen content on the Internet is simply not an acceptable mode of utilizing the internet.
The sites that are subject to the first two remedies, which is denying access from an ISP and removing them from search results -- these are related to sites dedicated to theft.
I'd say that Mr. von Lohmann and others are confusing lawlessness with freedom. Freedom does not include freedom to steal. It doesn't include that in the physical world and it should not include that in the Internet world. The notion that legitimate enforcement techniques can be misused in a repressive way can be made with respect to virtually any enforcement tool that's available in a civilized society.
The Chinese use police to arrest dissidents. Does that mean we shouldn't use police? No it means that our enforcement techniques should be directed and carefully calibrated to address illegal activity. That's what this does.
Mr. Cotton, I wonder how much of the onus for this is on congress and how much on the industry. For example, if I see something on USA, a network that NBC Universal owns, and I love it and want to share it with somebody but it's not on your web site, I might just go to YouTube to see if somebody grabbed it. At what point do content providers just say that this is the way of the world, so we just have to stay one step ahead of the pirates.
Access to legitimate content is mushrooming on the Internet. ABC, NBC, and Fox came together around Hulu. Hulu is now ad-supported and is a subscription site; they
make available huge amounts of TV content. As does iTunes with music.
But these new forms of distribution that all of the content providers are embracing cannot compete against stolen, cannot compete against free. TV programs or films or office software -- all of these require huge investment in order to produce.
Fred von Lohmann of Google, how sympathetic are you to challenges that companies like NBC Universal, Viacom, Disney, etc. face in producing content? In some ways
Google has been blessed –- you've had a piece of intellectual property –- this wonderful search algorithm that has printed money for years and made your company wildly profitable. That's a different model than that of the content providers, where the capital barrier to entry is enormous to make that kind of money.
Fred von Lohmann
We at Google are very sympathetic. We invest an enormous amount of money in trying to help creators monetize their content.
I agree that the legitimate alternatives are crucial. Netflix, Spotify, services like that are going to make a bigger dent on Internet piracy this year than anything congress can do. Ultimately the only way to beat online piracy is to give people something better that is legitimate. The industry has been making great strides in this, services like Hulu and Netflix. But Google has also done a great deal. We've built a content identification system into YouTube that allows rights holders to say I own copyright on this content. Our services will then automatically detect when that content appears, and we will allow the rights holder to block that if they want.
What we've found with more than 3,000 content owners, both large companies and small -- the vast majority elect to keep that content up. We put ads around it, and the majority of the money goes back to the content owner. So we're trying to build those kinds of solutions that will let content owners invest, make great content, and profit from it online.
In the current iteration of SOPA, there was a manager's amendment proferred that would clarify that the bill is not meant to target American web sites: Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter. How concerned are you that the slope would be slippery and that congress would say at some point we have to apply this to American companies as well.
Fred von Lohmann
There are two ways in which the bills both on the House and Senate side continue to threaten American companies. Both bills would include American companies that operate web sites on so-called country-code top-level domains. Amazon.ca for Canada or eBay.co.uk for the UK, etc. The bills reach those domains.
The other area is that there was a foundation put in place by congress in 1998 – the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. That law created the copyright foundation for all of the Internet companies that people enjoy. All of the Internet companies have been concerned that PIPA and SOPA might undermine that foundation.
I want to bring in Ellen Seidler, a filmmaker based in the Bay Area, who has had some experience with Internet piracy affecting her. Tell me about the kind of work you do.
A few years ago I was a partner in an independent film, self-financed. It was quite successful in the film festival circuit then we released it on DVD and legitimate online outlets. Within 24 hours it was online in illegal form.
I was aware piracy was going to be a problem, but what shocked me was the extent and how rapidly that one link multiplied into hundreds then thousands. We stopped counting. I've documented over 50,000 download links and streams to our film thus far.
The thing that surprised me most was not just that the film was being pirated, but what I saw as driving the piracy – which is the monetization of stolen content. It's not the pirate bays of the world or the bit torrents, it's the Cyberlockers and the business model that depends on stolen content.
With regard to Google, Mr. von Lohmann is talking about effort to cut off the money supply. But in the two years of dealing with this issue, every time I've approached Google about pirate web sits or ads by pirate web sites, they've done everything to avoid taking responsibility. They send DMCA notices to a web site called chillineffects.org, the implication that your DMCA notice is somehow chilling free speech, when the fact is that you as an artist are just asserting your legal rights. So I find it a little disingenuous to hear how concerned Google is about this when their ads the most prominent across the web.
Can you estimate how much you would have made from this film if it weren't pirated?
The film was quite successful; we screened it at more than 100 film festivals around the world. It was well received and very popular. But the bottom has dropped out out DVD sales. If we'd released it about 5 over 6 years ago we'd have no problem making our money back, but now that's never going to happen.
Fredrick von Lohmann of Google, what would you say to Ellen?
Fredrick von Lohmann
We of course are very sorry. However, we've been very clear, including with the takedown notices we've received from Ms. Seidler. We take that material down. If someone tells us there's pirated content on a particular web page , we remove an ad from that page.
On our own intitiative, we've blocked more than 25,000 web pages from receiving our ads. We did that without receiving a complaint. We get complaints for copyright infringement for far less than 1% of the pages that show our ads, and when we do we immediately take those ads down.
Listen to the complete episode below: