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Landlubbing pirate fighters

Blake J. Graham | Tuesday, January 31, 2012

SOPA, PIPA, OPEN, ACTA — The music and movie industries are trying to tear the Internet to bits! When that which we love and hold dear is threatened, we grab our pitchforks, practice our battle yells and head for the streets. At least that’s what we did on Jan. 18 when Wikipedia and its net-born pals decided to close for business in protest of the draconian bills sitting in Congress.

But a lot of people’s understanding of the nature of the protest is misconstrued. Yes, the Stop Internet Piracy Act and Protect IP Act are designed to combat piracy, but the online community wasn’t protesting in favor of piracy. Rather, they were protesting against the detrimental ways in which those particular bills fought piracy.

The principle behind SOPA recognizes that pirated content exists, and it generally exists in large clumps in countries outside the United States. For people in the U.S. to find this pirated content, they must go through sources like Google, Yahoo and Bing or navigate to file-sharing communities by means of URL.

To stop nefarious citizens from accessing such content, the logic followed that the government should step in and alter the foundation of the Internet to remove those linking connections from the user to the pirate’s chest of stolen booty. The MPAA and RIAA would then have the power to tell the government where to point its takedown cannons. If a link is found on Twitter that heads toward a pirate site, they could take down Twitter. It’s the equivalent of destroying every road leading out of a city on the assumption that there might be illegal action occurring wherever those roads may lead.

There’s no question that piracy is bad. Having material or content stolen, appropriated and rebranded is one of the worst things a content creator can encounter. As someone who has had intellectual property taken, I can speak to how devastating it is. But when one is dealing with a delicate networking system like the Internet, it takes the precision of a scalpel — not a tomahawk cruise missile — to protect the rights of content producers and ensure they get paid.

The most powerful tool in the modern fight against piracy is a bill passed in 1998 called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or DMCA. Under the DMCA a content creator can file a takedown notice to a site hosting their copyrighted material and the host can remove the material without facing liability for the content itself. To put this into context, DMCA takedown notices are most common on the ever popular video website, YouTube.

YouTube is magically unique from nearly any other video viewing service — it is the homeland of amateurs with a camera and something to share. But, up until being acquired for $1.65 billion by Google in Oct. 2006, YouTube was plagued with copyright issues.

The users of the site decided to create their own on demand service by uploading songs, films and portions of television shows. In 2007, Viacom took YouTube to court on the grounds of them hosting over 160,000 videos of copyrighted material. YouTube itself was protected under DMCA but the press was bad for the public view of the company.

To take a proactive stance against the inevitable masses of copyrighted material on the site, YouTube created a program called Content ID. With Content ID, all videos are analyzed for similarities between their nature and a database of copyrighted material. If a match is found, the copyright holder is issued a notice and an option. They can either request for the content in question to be taken off YouTube, or they can let it stand and sell advertising against it. This solution allowed the users to continue to go to YouTube to find the material they wanted, created an advertising window for the content producers and helped pay YouTube’s bills. Content ID now accounts for one-third of YouTube’s revenue.

The Internet allows for instant access to content to be possible, and as a rule on the web, the easiest method is always the best method. YouTube found a way to turn their copyright fiasco into a money-making proposition. Network streaming service Hulu has been attempting to combat piracy by providing their network content online with customizable options for ad partners. Spotify and Pandora offer services where the user can listen to their favorite music so long as they hear an advertisement every once in a while.

The MPAA and RIAA still assume that people want to own the media they consume, but they’re entirely wrong. The users of the Internet just want access to it. If the media conglomerates allow us to access their content easily — wherever and whenever we like — in exchange for ad time or a small monthly fee, piracy will truly be on the run.

Blake J. Graham is a freshman. He can be reached on Twitter @BlakeGraham or at bgraham2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.