On October 26, 2011, while a group of Russian teens were watching Gossip Girl illegally on VK, the First Amendment was nearly destroyed by soap.
Soap SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, was the US Government’s attempt to eliminate online copyright infringement and to punish websites and advertisers that supported illegally obtained content.
As a student who attended a boarding school without access to regular TV and a college program in Italy, I relied (and still do rely) heavily on file-sharing (specifically Megavideo). I love American TV, and when I am in the country, I like to add to the ratings (although as studies have shown, those of us with Tivo or DVR may not be counted anyway). But when I am abroad and need my Breaking Bad fix, I am grateful for file-sharing.
In Russia, VK has massive amounts of unlicensed material. This is not a secret. The Russian government has quite a bit of control over free speech (as well as many other things that Americans would consider rights). Yet they have not cracked down on the millions of illegal episodes that fill VK. Of course, there have been cases against VK, and the social media website has lost quite a few of these trials. But the site is still running strong. The United States tried to take aggressive action through SOPA while Russia has turned a blind eye.
Russia and the United States are major global superpowers; they were driving forces in political revolutions and World Wars, and square footage-wise take up quite a bit of the globe. They both hold great power and both have a lot to lose. Then why is America the only one aggressively reacting?
Could it be our culture? America was founded by men who wanted to be free and live by their own rules. With a foundation heavily based on the ideas of John Locke, we respect property. If you physically put effort and devoted time to a piece of land, that property was yours as well as any product and profit that came from it. Back in the times of bonnets and moonshine, this philosophy was easily applied. But now the American Dream has gone digital, and the landscape has shifted to the web. Tarantino deserves payment for a great film and Ke$ha deserves royalties for her music (does she really though?). Copyright and Patent Law has completely changed Locke’s definition. Our genes do not belong to our bodies, but to the companies that put in the time and effort to patent them, and the soybeans on your neighbors farm do not belong to him, but to Monsanto. You might put in the effort to record Django Unchained on you discreet button camera, upload it, add subtitles, and torrent it, but according to the law, Mr. T still needs to get paid.
The people are monitored in Russia. As we learned from our visiting speaker, when a police officer complains about working conditions, he is fired, and when citizens try and film reckless police driving, they are attacked. Since it has only been about two decades since the fall of Gorbachev, the totalitarian rule of Communism still hovers over aspects of government. America has been a democracy since its inception over two centuries ago. So why are we the ones censoring freedom of speech?
SOPA made me angry since it caused the creator of MegaUpload Kim Dotcom‘s arrest. It made my friends angry because they no longer had a way to watch that movie they needed for class (the one that was too rare for itunes and too racy for Netflix). It made Anonymous so angry that they fought back. I do believe that artists deserve to be compensated for their work. I would hope that when I write my Pulitzer prize winning New York Times bestselling novel, I will get a check for all the copies sold. But I also know that we are a generation that has become accustomed to speed and accessibility. Everything has moved online: our social life, shopping, banking and activism. Our entertainment needs to be online too.
In 1999, when I let my best friend borrow my Spice Girls CD and she shared it with her brother, it was acceptable. But in this internet age when we can get almost anything in seconds for free from strangers across the world, where do we draw the line between what is sharing and what is piracy? Where do we draw the line between our right to free speech and our respect for intellectual property? I don’t know…just let me watch my Mad Men in peace!