Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Free for now...Free for now...

The famous words to the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!" are being sung by today by corporations. “Corporations are people” said GOP Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney this summer. The Supreme Court started the idea a few years ago when it struck down provisions of the McCain–Feingold Act that prohibited all corporations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, and unions from broadcasting “electioneering communications.” The hat trick in personifying corporations is the Protect IP Act in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act in Congress.

This legislation allows the government to order service providers to block websites for infringing links posted by any users. It becomes a felony with a potential 5 year sentence to stream a copyrighted work that would cost more than $2,500 to license, even if you are a totally noncommercial user, e.g. singing a pop song on Facebook. Thousands of sites that are legal under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act would face new legal threats. The DNS privacy currently enjoyed will change so that sites can be tracked. China and Iran already use the revised DNS process.

Recently I’ve been doing a shortened version of this written blog as a 3-minute video. As I’m recording let’s say one my neighbors has a party and they crank up the volume to some really popular song and because my windows are open a snippet of the music gets recorded in the background. Once I upload my video, I’ve just committed a felony and am going to jail. If that wasn’t silly enough, the Government could then direct Google, Bing, Yahoo and service providers like Time Warner, Verizon, etc. to remove my blog from the Internet. Extreme and hyperbolic? Maybe, but that’s what these bills allow for.

Today when somebody is upset, frustrated or want to make a point, the Internet is the soapbox of choice. Think of virtually any major product or company and there will exist a “ihateFILLINBLANK.com” version of their site or a “FILLINBLANKsucks.com” that details the complaints. Because the FILLINBLANK is the trademark and copyright name of a corporate entity, this legislation would permit the government to shut down the site. I could ask the government to shut down www.CraigCooganSucks.com and send those people to jail.

I’ve spent the majority of my professional career working in and around major entertainment studios and providers. As a blogger I am a content creator. There is tremendous value in protecting the creator’s legal and fiscal recourse to their work. Do some people use copyrighted material for their own financial gain? I’m sure there are plenty of examples. Should it be stopped? Of course. This legislation isn’t the answer to any legitimate complaint or issue of misused copyright. It’s about control and further equalizing business interests with individual rights.

Corporations are not people. They are entities made up of people. Corporations serve a vital function in society by providing goods, services, employment and, yes, profit to the shareholders and communities they serve. Let’s not diminish their importance and role in society. The granting of an entity equal standing with individuals is, however, extremely problematic. This legislation is the most recent example where individual rights (freedom of expression) are supplanted by corporate protection.

The “fair use” principle allows for the protection of copyrighted work while giving limited exceptions based on a series of tests. The concept originated in 1709 and is embedded in the Constitution. It has been modified over the years, and perhaps now in the Digital Age a further clarification of “fair use” is in order.

Instead of a common-sense modification of “fair use” 38 members of the Senate and 23 members of Congress are cosponsors of these Acts that would strip away fundamental freedoms. How could this happen? 54% of the Senate and 36% of Congress are lawyers.  It is not unexpected with so many lawyers in an institution that makes laws that creating new laws is the path chosen as opposed to modifying existing processes. With corporate funding legal for political races it is also not surprising that bills to protect those corporations sprout up.

It seems ridiculous…Onion-like, or even a sketch from Saturday Night Live…that such clear violations of freedom of speech could be seriously considered, let alone that so many elected leaders would support legislation that undermines the First Amendment in such a boldfaced fashion. That is the disconnect that exists in today’s politics. That is why Congress has a 9% approval rate. That is why you, dear reader, must give thanks this Thanksgiving for the freedoms that we still have and you must, please, contact your legislator and tell them to keep the Internet free forever, free forever, God Almighty keep it free forever.

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