Over the past decade, copyright holders have successfully shut down scores of Web sites and file-sharing services in a quixotic effort to halt the illicit circulation of movies, music and software online. None of it has made a dent in overall levels of piracy, and bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act are unlikely to fare any better.
Conscripting search engines, Internet service providers and advertisers as online copyright cops — as these bills propose — may not effectively choke off access to supposed "rogue sites" overseas, but it does threaten innovation by imposing new burdens on U.S. start-ups and scaring investors away from cloud storage services and new platforms for user-generated content. That also makes these laws open to abuse, since any platform that lets creators circumvent industry-controlled distribution channels will inevitably facilitate some copyright infringement. If the companies behind SOPA had their way, the government would have killed off the VCR and the MP3 player as well.
Worse, the two bills threaten free expression by bluntly condemning whole Web domains and online platforms — infringing content and protected speech alike — on the basis of streamlined, one-sided hearings that make a mockery of due process. The government would essentially claim the right to choke off traffic and revenue to entire sites, without ever having to try or convict its owners of any crime. It should be no surprise that similar domestic authority has already led to sites being wrongfully shuttered.
Copyright owners already have many mechanisms at their disposal to go after pirate sites — and perhaps they should have others that properly respect due process, like those laid out in the OPEN Act sponsored by Senator Ron Wyden and Representative Darrell Issa. But we should bear in mind two important facts: First, though copyright industries have concocted some truly absurd statistics purporting to show apocalyptic harms from piracy, by any objective measure they remain extraordinarily healthy. Second, whatever Congress does now, it is only ever going to get easier to copy and circulate information online. As our own State Department recognizes when it comes to regimes like Iran's, building an "information curtain" is a "very expensive endeavor" that's "bound to fail in today’s increasingly interactive world."
As the success of services like Hulu and Netflix suggests, consumers are only too happy to pay for content that's made available in a convenient form, and at a reasonable price. If the content industries want a genuinely effective way to reduce global piracy, they should spend less time and money lobbying for new regulations, and focus on providing innovative services that make piracy unattractive.