Some thoughts on the Wikipedia blackout

By Aaron Boehlert

As everyone knows, Wikipedia was blacked out this Wednesday in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) currently in front of the US Congress. And though every UCC boy was upset not to be able to read articles about ‘The Buttered Cat Paradox’ in ToK or ‘Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamten-gesellschaft’ in European History or ‘The Will Rogers Phenomenon’ in Econ, no one really seems to understand what the blackout was about. Allow me to clarify.

The Stop Online Piracy Act is a bill currently before the US House of Representatives (which, together with the Senate, makes up the House of Congress). The bill would seek to end online copyright infringement, but would essentially hold websites that provide user-generated content (i.e. YouTube and Wikipedia) accountable for the actions of its users. If, for instance, GabZ1985 posted a Golden Girls Greatest Moments clip on YouTube without possessing the rights to that bit, he or she would be guilty of infringement. However YouTube would be held accountable. If the material were not removed, Congress would then theoretically bar advertising companies from doing business with YouTube, prevent search engines from displaying YouTube, and stop internet service providers (ISPs) from allowing access to YouTube.

Similarly, the Protect IP Act, which is in front of the Senate, would take action to ‘stop financial transactions’ between sites which display copyrighted material and legitimate businesses (ad agencies, service providers, search engines). This bill was passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which would lead to a vote, however Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has put a hold on it, which prevents it from reaching a vote. Likely this was done with the intent to give the senators more time to consider the bill, however a hold can be overturned by a three-fifths vote.

Though the bills initially seem harsh to websites that show user-generated content, especially given their role in our daily lives now, if considered objectively they do make a lot of economic and ethical sense. It is unfair to music artists who spend months working on a song that it is shown for free on YouTube. It is unfair to the actors of films and shows – not to mention producers, directors, and investors – that they should be freely accessible despite being copyrighted. And while free information is amazing and I do not think that should be reduced at all, that does not extend to intellectual property, especially that which is licensed under law. And though I would rather not have TBAW shut down for using the above unlicensed photo, I do support SOPA and PIPA.

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