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Yesterday there was a fairly pervasive internet blackout in protest of SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act). For those of you who frequent the areas of the internet supported/created by writers, artists, musicians and the like, this was probably no surprise. There’s been chatter about this potential legislation on websites and Twitter for months now, with calls for voters to contact their political representatives and make their feelings known. However, a few people no doubt showed up to their computers and were confused by the lack of Wikipedia access, or the big blackout sign over the Google logo.

A brief explanation is that SOPA and PIPA seek to put a stop to internet piracy of creative works such as films, songs, and books. That sounds great, yes? Except that the heavy-handed methods these laws would wield would ultimately result in web-wide censorship. Instead of targeting individuals who are making illegal downloads of creative works available, everyone would be held liable, including owners of search engines used to locate the illegal downloads. That means Google would be blamed each time someone used the site to search for a movie download. If you link to legitimate content on a site that also hosts something less legitimate, your site could be shut down.

There are many sites that have more detailed and complete explanations available. But in essence, these potential laws are using very broad strokes where precision is required. I heard someone compare it to going after a flea with a cannon.

So where does that leave piracy? Here’s the thing: It takes two to tango, folks. I spend quite a fair amount of time sending cease-and-desist letters to sites that are hosting illegal downloads of my clients’ books. And I’ve heard all the excuses. They’re “helping” the writer by making their work available to more people. The people who download illegally never would have paid for the work to begin with, so no one’s really losing sales. The writers are rich and so a few free copies here and there don’t make a difference.

Bullshit. Seriously, all of that is complete bull.

The books are available. In this world of bookstores and libraries and Amazon.com, you can get your hands on pretty much anything.

If you’re not willing to pay for the work, you can borrow it from a library or a friend. Not being willing to pay is not an excuse for stealing.

Most writers have to hold down a full-time job in addition to writing because they only make a few thousand dollars a year. It takes time to write a book. Years, sometimes. And it’s rare when an advance works out to more than minimum wage for the hours it took to write the book.

I’m not saying you’re all out there downloading books and making excuses. But I am asking you to wave red flags. If you stumble across a site hosting copies of your favorite author’s works — obvious pirated copies — take a moment to head over to the author’s website and shoot them an e-mail with a link. Help make it harder for these pirates to keep their sites functional. Be a good citizen of the internet.

Yes, we need better laws governing this sort of thing online, but pirates are pirates; they’re already operating outside the given laws, so it’s unlikely new ones are going to completely eliminate the problem. And heavy-handed legislation that limits everyone’s ability to share content and information online will seriously change the face of the world wide web.

A Tweet was floating around yesterday: Download a Michael Jackson song illegally and go to prison for 5 years; help kill Michael Jackson and go to prison for 4 years. Crude, yes, but frighteningly accurate.

The blackout against SOPA and PIPA is over, but the concerns regarding this potential legislation remain. It is scheduled to go to a vote on Tuesday, January 24th. Find out where your representatives stand on this issue and let them know what you think. Help keep the internet a creative resource and place of learning and sharing for everyone.

Resources:

An Open Letter to Washington from Artists and Creators

Stop the Wall

SOPA Strike (includes ways to help for non-US citizens)

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