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SOPA, PIPA and Piracy

January 18, 2012

A lot of noise has been made about SOPA recently and it’s cousin, PIPA. Mostly, it seems that these aren’t quite what is needed but something has to be done. And, unfortunately, it is going to have to be done by the US and Western Europe unilaterally because there will be no cooperation from the rest of the world.

There are two issues that these proposals are supposed to address. The first is simple digital piracy. Right now I can purchase a software product online using a “borrowed” credit card and post this on a web site hosted in some foreign land for everyone to download for free. If the publisher has taken extraordinary steps to prevent this, through various sorts of licensing controls, it is a simple matter to engage tens or even hundreds of volunteers to break these controls. There are plenty of knowledgable people out there willing to devote their time to this.

The same goes for music, movies, books and anything else that can be efficiently represented in a digital form.

The second issue is that if copies of physical products. If you walk around downtown Manhatten you will be approached by people offering everything from electronics to purses at amazing discounted prices. Or so it would seem. If you know anything about the “real” merchandise you will quickly discover that these “discounted” items are poorly made copies that are nothing like the “real” items. It is thought that various things from the US First Amendment to the idea that such counterfeit goods are somehow legal because the company producing the goods is in a different country protects the sale of these things.

Enter the Internet and with limited law enforcement cooperation internationally it is easy for people to make plenty of money offering low, low prices for pirated and counterfeit goods. If you are in the US and see a web page offering a product you created you might be surprised because today there is nothing that you can do about it. Sure, you can find out where the web site is hosted, hire a lawyer in that country and try to sue. Sorry, but most of the countries hosting such web sites have rules that prevent foreigners from using their courts to attack their citizens. You will also discover that even if that country has signed treaties relating to copyright and intellectual property rights they simply do not care to enforce such laws.

One of the cute things that I have run across is the idea that the goal we should all be seeking is an economy like that described in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe. Money pretty much had no meaning there, although every once in a while it reared its ugly head – I suggest starting to question why Harry Mudd or the trader in The Trouble with Tribbles would do the things they did if there was no financial gain. Anyway, the thinking goes that the ideal, perfect world would be like Star Trek. There is no money in the Star Trek universe and everything is available for free. So, how do we get to the Star Trek sort of economy? Easy – make everything free right now. Or, at least as much as possible. How? Destroy the reveue model for everything through piracy on the Internet. Nice idea, huh?

InfinaDyne has a number of consumer products. Prior to 2003 significant revenue was produced by these products and really got the entire company started. Starting around 2003 piracy reduced the revenue about 90-95% so today very little is done on the consumer front. Law enforcement agencies do not use pirated software, so you can guess where nearly all of our development efforts are focused.

Right now, Apple iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad hardware have very restrictive processes for adding software. For the most part, it can only come from the Apple App Store. This effectively eliminates piracy for these platforms. Yes, we are actively developing software for the Apple environment.

So on some fronts there is a ray of hope for software. Music? Digital music has approximately zero value today. Movies? If you have a really fast Internet connection, downloading movies is practical and people are doing it. If you don’t have a fast connection, it can take a week to get a single movie and nobody wants to wait that long. Books? You can find just about every current book available from pirate sites on the Internet, but in many cases there is little intersection between people that know how to obtain these files and people with e-readers like the Kindle. At least so far. I know if my income depended on retail sales of music, movies or e-books I would be a little worried. And in five years if nothing changes I would not expect to be in business any longer.

So while SOPA and PIPA have problems, it is clear that something has to be done. We in the US and Western Europe aren’t going to get any help from the countries hosting these web sites, so whatever is done is going to have to be done within our own borders and unilaterally. Is SOPA or PIPA a reasonable temporary solution while we come up with something better? I doesn’t look like that is a realistic approach – both bills are accumulating too much baggage to ever be enacted at this point. Do you think we are going to see a practical legal framework for combating digital piracy or counterfeit goods in the next few years? I don’t right now – there are too many people equating “freedom on the Internet” with “freedom to get stuff for free”.

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