Think right now about your home bookshelf. If yours looks like mine, it contains odds and ends, comic books you’ve saved for years, books mailed to you or bought on a street corner, your own collection of dog-eared titles, some old yearbooks. Now think about the privacy of your own home and the few legal ways in which that privacy can be violated: an emergency response, a crime, a public health crisis. Imagine if once a year you had to open your door to a copyright agent who could scan your library for content that you have not paid for, add up your violations, and send you a bill. Imagine if the agent came by once a week, or even once a day. Imagine that the agent found a picture of the nerdy kid from high school in your yearbook and explained that that kid copyrighted his likeness, so you’ll have to either pay up or destroy his high school photo.
This is the world that content companies want to create. Legislation they have proposed in the U.S. and around the world — SOPA, PIPA and ACTA — would open the Internet’s house to any agent.
Artists and big companies often warn us of the opposite of this problem — the idea that the Internet is a lawless space where content is pirated, stolen and shared recklessly, costing them billions of dollars in lost revenue and shrinking the incentives for artists to produce new works. After all, if they can’t be paid fairly for them, why bother?
But not being able to monetize media doesn’t mean you have to obsessively limit it. As the content companies see it, the bookshelf described above is the data stream heading into your house, and they, specifically those who create music and video, are demanding that governments consent, more or less, to let them tap the wires. SOPA and PIPA are currently on hold, but ACTA, whose provisions are almost as enveloping, is taking root all over Europe, though not without protests.
Amazingly, governments around the world, including the Obama administration, resisted making ACTA’s text public. American politicians said the provisions the U.S. was agreeing to enforce were “national security secrets.” Ironic, then, that the Internet should be open for inspection, but the inspectors’ marching orders shouldn’t.