In case you missed it — and I actually did — hundreds of Websites were blacked out yesterday in protest of some proposed US legislation. The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) has a self-explanatory intent, but aspects of it have many people crying, “Censorship!”
I've had a hard time writing about yesterday's protest without getting entrenched in a debate over the First Amendment, so I'm just going to avoid that topic. But the uproar is so interesting because there could be a lot of business at stake.
The best SOPA synopsis I've seen so far is in the Wall Street Journal. The bill's biggest supporters are movie and music companies, and the loudest protestors are Web companies. But I'd rather look at the implications for the electronics industry.
Semico's Michell Prunty crystallized the issue in her blog The Agony of Digital Rights Management. SOPA is really about digital rights management, and DRM is crucial to the supply chain.
Prunty's observation that the semiconductor industry “likes to think it doesn't have to worry” about DRM, because people say “those things will work themselves out” struck a chord with me. In our world — the digital ecosystem — content is king. A lot of content relies on hardware from cradle to grave. The sounds and visuals of most movies and music don't happen without a whole lot of support from technology, from the cameras used to film movies to the LEDs and switches under the on/off button of your PC, smartphone, or tablet.
Do the artists still own the creative rights to this stuff? Of course they do. But much of this content is developed with the assistance of processors, DRAM, disk drives, displays, crystal clear digital sound, and lots and lots of battery life. Hardware companies have skin in the SOPA game.
But making sure copyrights are enforced remains a challenge, as the SOPA opera this week demonstrated. If content becomes increasingly restricted, either voluntarily or by law, licensing costs are going to skyrocket. Legal downloads, in turn, will also become more expensive. Consumers are going to look for more free content (probably pirated) or go back to CDs, DVDs, and cheaper means of entertainment. The digital ecosystem as we know it may suffer. What's the point of owning an iPad if you can't surf and download from the Web? How much are you willing to pay for a song, book, movie, or video? I know there's a price point I won't tolerate, but I haven't reached it yet.
Hardware companies have been battling copyright infringement longer than many Internet companies have existed. I'm not sure these efforts will be any help to SOPA, but it's disingenuous to think only Internet/content companies have a stake in the legislation. So I'd like to hear from you. Does the bill go too far? Or do we need strict measures to preserve the digital ecosystem? Bonus question: Does anyone else find the idea of Wikipedia censoring its own site ironic?