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SOPA – yeah, not a good idea

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Those of you who read my blogs may know I am a staunch supporter of intellectual property rights. A great many creative works exist because intellectual property laws allow people to spend time creating when they’d otherwise work non-creative jobs to pay the rent.

The internet has, on balance, been a marketing boon for content creators, especially for small artists who previously could only access buyers through layers of intermediaries. But easy distribution has a down side. Parasites flourish in environments where content is copied so freely. International piracy is an especially tricky problem for content creators in developed countries, and some of the larger content owners have crafted this thing called SOPA in an attempt to fight back. In essence, SOPA allows content creators to shut down U.S. access to foreign sites that distribute pirated material. What do I, as a supporter of copyright, think of SOPA?

It’s horrid. I won’t mince words. If enacted, SOPA will initiate a cascade of unintended effects that will, I am not exaggerating, shut down the internet. Whatever economic benefit is gained from protecting intellectual property will be swamped out by the much larger losses to commerce and communication.

While I personally am bothered that scores of Russian pest control companies are advertising their services with pirated photographs of mine, for which I receive not even an acknowledgement, that is not so serious a problem for my entirely web-based business than what would happen if  the net itself slowed and staggered under the weight of infringement accusations.

Piracy is a problem, sure. But not one so severe as to merit nuking the infrastructure underlying modern commerce.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. Mad Benny 2:26 pm 01/13/2012

    Here’s why ‘intellectual’ property rights are a fraud. When musicians whine that their music is being stolen, (and they, or their labels, seem to do this constantly, for no other reason then their whole lack of innovation, and desire to actually perform). Not only being sampled, but the whole, ‘Hey, i jammed those notes together first’, i suggest they do a little math. There are only 12 notes in the western musical format. And most of those, when placed into scales equals maybe 6-12, (if you include dotted) note lengths. Don’t think for a second that number of octaves count. My butt get’s sued if i do the same song in a different octave, or not. But scales and all that jazz aside, there are only a few time signifiers. 16th, 8th, quarter, half etc… to dotted whole notes. Sure you can slide notes together and stuff, (atonal anyone?), but really, it is an easily quantifiable number. At any time, you can only have one of 12 possible notes, or silence, (rests), of course, fitting into one of limited lengths of time.
    Now, how many friend of yours are ‘musicians’? How many musicians are on the planet? Who knows, probably a lot less then they like to pretend, but still millions and millions upon millions. Way more then the 12 notes they are allowed to legally signifying. And all those possible notes, in every combination of frequency vs. length of time, are used! All of them, and every combination of them.
    If you stand behind something as mentally deranged as intellectual property, i suggest you divide that by the number of other ‘artists’ and figure out how many possible options you have, especially considering you all grew up with the same limited influences. The truth is, because someone though of something first, it should not, does not, and will never be the rights of only that person to use. And the people deciding how many notes together, and in what succession, those notes are legally allowed to fit together, are not even musicians. They are lawyers. Now why would they want to promote these laws where only certain artists are allowed to string these notes together? Uhhhh, their paychecks maybe.
    Sampling is one thing, because you’re literally stealing the notes that that musician specifically recorded, (or bugs they photographed, etc…), but please don’t back anything as absurd as IP, because that’s the exact reason why medical advancements are being held back. Did those scientists literally make that dna code for cancer? No, they only charted it out, (and bully for them!), but that is enough to legally prevent anybody from fixing it? Yup, if you back this lie of IP.
    You, or anyone can argue these facts, but you cannot argue the math, which, for music, (the biggest bellyachers, seconded only by the movie industry and their oh so orignal plot developments), is something along these lines; 12 (notes) x 12 (note lengths) at any one time. Sure this gets a little more complicated with the exponentials of each and every note, but against the backdrop of millions of people producing music, it becomes laughably small.

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  2. 2. smcnerne 2:45 pm 01/13/2012

    Hey Alex, nice article. You may like this – there is a new app that let’s users identify if a product is “pro” or “con” SOPA.

    Here is a link to an article about it.

    Link to this
  3. 3. lyellr 2:47 pm 01/13/2012

    I don’t think that quite does justice to the fact that a melody is almost never a single note, rather a collection of notes over time, which adds a great deal more possible combinations (especially when you consider a 20khz frequency range and the nearly infinite combinations of sounds that different vocalizations/instrumentations can produce).

    That said, I agree: warring over intellectual property rights (and especially doing so with such ill conceived measures as SOPA) distracts from the fact that with a greater degree of freedom comes a vastly greater production of art, science, music – what have you – that is far more valuable than the attrition that piracy imposes.

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  4. 4. derekb 4:31 pm 01/13/2012

    What a disgracefully alarmist article. Much that gets posted on Scientific American nowadays seems to have no basis in science, so I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that hysterical comments like “If enacted, SOPA will initiate a cascade of unintended effects that will, I am not exaggerating, shut down the internet” get made without any supporting evidence whatsoever.

    You say: “some of the larger content owners have crafted this thing called SOPA in an attempt to fight back” – you should acknowledge that SOPA is supported by many businesses in many industries (here is a list of just some of them –, and also has strong bipartisan support in the House and Senate. This is not something cooked up by a fat-cat record label.

    You say: “SOPA allows content creators to shut down U.S. access to foreign sites that distribute pirated material” – which completely fails to acknowledge the lengthy due process involved (see – “Under no circumstances can a private rights holder bring any type of action that would result in a site being blocked by an ISP or search engine. That capability is only afforded to the U.S. Attorney General, who may only do so after obtaining a Federal Court order that a site is ‘dedicated to infringing activity’ (in a process conducted under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure).”)

    You say: “Whatever economic benefit is gained from protecting intellectual property will be swamped out by the much larger losses to commerce and communication.” – again, absolutely no evidence of this whatsoever (and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce certainly disagrees with you – see

    Frankly it’s pathetic that so many opponents of SOPA seem incapable of discussing the issue without resorting to hysterical and alarmist statements which are unsupported by the facts.

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  5. 5. Gojira74 4:32 pm 01/13/2012

    So, Mad Benny’s argument is that because there is a limited number of possible juxtapositions of notes that intellectual property is insane? That applies to anything as there is also a finite juxtaposition of atoms possible. By your rant’s logic, that means that individual people don’t exist and have no real significance because there is a finite number of possible combinations. How does the number of possible combinations of atoms make owning a shovel irrelevant. Your argument has no real foundation. Sorry, maybe try again?

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  6. 6. HBG_Dave 5:24 pm 01/13/2012

    Interesting comment on the Russian ant-image thieves – in Soviet times, copyright was considered capitalist thievery and ignoring copyright a virtue.

    On principle, I try never to agree with Alex, but on SOPA I have too. The bill is another of the bipartisan assaults on freedom of information specifically designed to satisfy the creepy corporations that fund them.

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  7. 7. fixerdave 6:54 pm 01/13/2012

    “A great many creative works exist because intellectual property laws allow people to spend time creating when they’d otherwise work non-creative jobs to pay the rent.”

    Yes, true, but a great many creative works were created long before copyright existed. Realistically, all the greatest of great works, the masterpieces we all cherish, were produced before copyright. So, why do we have copyright now?

    The simple answer is that the industrial age produced a business model that involved canning ideas in saleable packages. It worked great for a little while. But, the industrial age is over, we’re in the information age now and we don’t need packages. These old business practices need to be thrown on the scrap heap and replaced with new ones that will actually work in the information age. Industrial age laws like SOPA that attempt to hold back the future will fail. It’s only a matter of how much damage they do in the process. SOPA looks to be able to cause a lot of damage.

    The basic truth is that if you want to make money releasing ideas (songs, photos, whatever) then you need to get paid in full for them BEFORE they are released. End of story.

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  8. 8. Alex Wild 7:47 pm 01/13/2012


    The “great masterpieces”, as you say, were possible because the aristocracy could pay the talent to commission them.

    In your ideal world, where copyright laws are abolished, only the wealthy will have time to create on their own, and the talented creators without wealth will again be subject to the whims of the very rich. I find that world offensive.

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  9. 9. HBG_Dave 12:11 am 01/14/2012

    In my ideal world, the logic of the market place would be regulated only to the degree necessary so that every individual had an even playing field in which to compete and no one had an incentive to steal. So in paradise, Alex would dominate the ant-picture niche and be in the upper end of the bug-picture niche (dominated by Piotr), but all would benefit from the beauty and information content of the images, and all would willingly pay their tithes for the privilege of using their images to illustrate their tedious prose. Alas, our copyright laws and political system seem intent on returning us to the days of George I where only those in power benefit from any IP.

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  10. 10. fixerdave 3:08 am 01/14/2012

    “In your ideal world, where copyright laws are abolished, only the wealthy will have time to create on their own, and the talented creators without wealth will again be subject to the whims of the very rich. I find that world offensive.”

    Again, yes, the patron system did support a great many artists, still does to a limited extent. However, as the current pay-by-copy system dies, and it is dieing, why do you look to the past instead of the future? In the past, only the very rich could afford to even enjoy the arts, let alone fund their production. Today, as will hopefully be in the future, there are a great many people that both want this art, have paid for it, and will continue to do so. They just won’t do it the way you want. The desire for content is still there. The money is still there. The only thing amiss is the out-dated system that moves the money to the content creators.

    The current pay-for-copy system has exactly the same flaw that donation-based systems have. People don’t like being treated unfairly and paying for something that someone is easily getting for free feels very unfair. It’s just the way humans are. Humans are also preconditioned to share. Those two things together guarantee that the pay-per-copy system will die in an age where copies are free. Laws will not change that.

    The only solution for the creators of content is to reward the people that do pay with something extra. No, this can’t be extra content as that will just be freely shared as well. This ‘extra’ must be something that cannot be copied for free, it must matter to the people getting it, and it can’t cost the producer any extra to create or distribute it. What is this ‘extra’? Look around you; it pervades human society. Ask yourself why those rich patrons paid artists to create those masterpieces, ask yourself why fans and groupies exist, or ask yourself why people bother to post comments to your blog.

    If you can’t figure it out then go read my blog. I’ve designed a system that encourages people to pay for content – it’s not that complicated. As it turns out, I seem to have a strong aversion to business and my attempts at motivating myself to build this system have fallen flat, as have my attempts to sell it. It seems you can’t sell ideas – well, with my system in place you will be able to, but that’s a catch-22 loop. So, I’m publishing this system for free. Some entrepreneurial type will build it, no doubt be bought out by Google for millions, and I’ll get nothing. But, such is the way of the world. I’ve been busy doing other things but this whole SOPA business is dragging my attention back here.

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  11. 11. Glendon Mellow 9:00 pm 01/14/2012

    I agree with just about everything Alex said in his post about SOPA.

    Fixerdave, your ideas and ideas by writers like Cory Doctorow have a lot of merit. I’ve seen it doezens of times on G+:
    1. Make Cool Stuff
    2. Put it online for free
    3. Hope others pay you to make more cool stuff

    It’s worked for me to a limited extent, but it’s not a living wage. Most illustrators I know are in the same boat. Like Alex, I agree that individuals should have control of their own IP. Personally I put a lot of my stuff under Creative Commons (Non-Deriv-Non-commercial) but that’s my choice. Better education about what copyright is would help at even a grade-school or high school level, in my opinion, especially with more and more school assignments being researched online.

    SOPA isn’t the way to do it.

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  12. 12. Jerzy New 8:50 am 01/15/2012

    Fact: new technology companies in Asia thrive and grow despite rudimentary protection of intellectual property.

    Fact: China files more patents than USA.

    Fact: East Asia has more artists and larger game market.

    If piracy were a problem, US companies should switch business model to Asian.

    Fact: 80% of people download some illegal content. Therefore SOPA potentially allowing to close mouths of 80% of US citizens.

    Don’t you guys understand that SOPA is censorship under the noble guise? Any website can be censored under the accusation of stealing some intellectual property.

    Army can censor films of soldiers shooting civilians by claiming that army tape means the army has intellectual rights. Government can shut down activists and small organization by finding some illegal content.

    Rich corporations would be able to kill little companies by long, expensive lawsuits together with closing access to the internet.

    Little consolation is that SOPA will mean, de facto US putting barriers to its own business. Internet companies based in Europe and Asia will take over the emptied international market and ultimately take over US market, too.

    Link to this

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