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White House shelves SOPA... now what?

We can ditch the laws when the Valley's snotty web teens grow up

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The deeper battle is a the historic one, about how much social and corporate responsibility new internet companies are obliged to take on board. The DMCA legislation of October 1998, correctly, let them off the hook for anything. This was done in the hope that new markets would be created without the constraints imposed by backward-looking copyright industries.

But now, after 15 years, things seem quite curious. It's the web giants that are backward-looking, and who fight hardest against the creation of markets. (They'd much prefer to be personal data miners, rather than allow free commerce to flourish.) Silicon Valley has done very well wrapping angle brackets and pastel colour graphics around 30-year-old internet protocols and calling them innovation. IRC becomes Twitter, for example. As former vulture Ashlee Vance writes here (a must-read), Valley's Web innovation may not leave very much for our grandchildren – and is acquiring all the vanity of Hollywood.

Web companies may have thoroughly outgunned property rights owners in terms of light and noise generated online fighting SOPA, but that's because the professional industry lobby groups focus like lasers on the lawmakers. And here, with the rise of China, the deeper argument is being won.

China today mirrors the dynamic growth of the United States 100 years ago, and has the same buccaneering disrespect for other people's stuff. Which leaves the question of how to compete. The West doesn't do manufacturing any more, so the 'intangible' or 'invisible' inventions are much more important. The West can't afford not to protect its inventors and creators: if it can't, there's nothing to build the service economy of the future upon, and life becomes a diminishing series of asset bubbles. This is simple, brutal economics, and Utopian waffle about internet freedoms do not cut much muster – at least not on a planet where unicorns don't have the vote, and the emerging Eastern economies are delighted to take what they can.

And the specific problem SOPA was designed to address – exquisitely demonstrated here by this independent film-maker at Pop Up Pirates – is very much a live one. Rights-owners argue that it's because their property rights aren't enforceable. For years we could argue that 'harm' took place because of the absent of cheap, decently-priced legitimate services. But with cheap streaming services coming online, that's hard to argue now.

So there's a problem, and we don't like web-blocking legislation as a 'solution'. Fair enough.

Wrinkle avoidance strategies

For years, copyright industries avoided old-age wrinkles by using enforcement to retain control - working against the grain of technology, rather than with it. Copyright industries are not natural enforcers, when they try it, they're quite spectacularly clumsy. Take your pick from from an unsavoury list over the years that includes remote kill-switches for media, or creating and distributing millions of spoofed music files containing noise, or plans to insert spyware onto your PC that locks your computer or deletes your music. All pretty dumb. More recently, they've started to work with the implications of digital networks: with UltraViolet you buy a license, rather than repeatedly purchasing limited rights over and over again. That's a step forward.

And it's the sort of progressive thinking conspicuous by its absense in Silicon Valley, and its armies of 'copyfighters'. They love the war too much for it to end. And to keep fighting, you must avoid thinking about constructive, mutual agreements. That might cause wrinkles. Spencer's ear plugs are firmly in place.

Well, to return to where we started, legislation is quite unnecessary. That is, if ISPs abided by a clear and open voluntary code to respect creators' rights, which required booting out the few serial offenders; if ad networks refused to support parasitic foreign companies; and if search engines shared revenue with media companies to whence they drove traffic, we wouldn't need new laws. This is not a fantasy - it's going to happen in the UK, remember. The UK has website-blocking legislation on the statute book, but Culture Minister Ed Vaizey wants a voluntary agreement - a most liberal solution - instead. Alas ISPs, service providers and search engines today see only risk in being socially responsible, not an opportunity.

As Friday's exasperated joint White House statement points out, the copyright worries are justified, and entitled to some kind of enforcement - they won't go away. A property owner must be able to enforce their property rights, with legal backup, and the effective sort, or the rights become meaningless. They shouldn't be able to do so easily or cheaply, lest this becomes a substitute for innovation, for finding talent and marketing it effectively.

"Don’t limit your opinion to what’s the wrong thing to do, ask yourself what’s right," the Three Czars demand.

However, Silicon Valley's problem - and one activists have - is that they've never thought about it like this. They've never seen a voluntary copyright enforcement backstop they liked: they were all problematic. Campaigners instinctively oppose everything - leading to ever more bonkers legislation.

Like Spencer, Silicon Valley doesn't seem to want worry about it, it doesn't want too many wrinkles in old age. This is why I call SOPA "what goes around, comes around" legislation. It isn't nice, and it isn't necessary, but we're all here because Silicon Valley's web companies refuse to grow up. The White House just told them they should. ®

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