#SOPA and #PIPA: Separating the Real from the Rhetoric

Unbeknownst to most Americans, Washington has been waging copyright and intellectual property battles for years, many of which I witnessed while working for the Motion Picture Association of America (a SOPA and PIPA supporter) and, now, PRSA (a SOPA and PIPA opponent). Having seen the issue from both sides, I’m in a unique position to provide what has so far been missing from this debate: a balanced perspective.

RELATED: PRSA issues statement in opposition of SOPA and PIPA.

As you may have noticed, the one constant throughout the current debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) has been hyperbole, with each side insisting a legislative defeat would be ruinous to the economy, innovation and American competitiveness. It reminds me of 1982, when former MPAA CEO Jack Valenti famously testified to Congress that, “The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone!”

But even as both sides have claimed victories in the battles that comprise the larger war, none of the predicted gloom and doom has come to pass. It’s business as usual for most, if not all, the major players involved.

The root cause of this war is a complex matter that confuses many, and bores most. At its core, the concept of copyright as codified in U.S. law is this: the creators of works are entitled to a limited period of time during which they have the exclusive right to use and profit from their work. (This same concept was expressed a bit differently by Samuel Johnson, who famously wrote, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”)

At the same time, it is generally understood that, at a certain point, public good results from works being released from their copyrights and that, in certain cases, “fair use” should allow for the use of copyrighted materials without the permission of copyright owners.

While these principles are generally agreed to by all, how they should be interpreted — especially as technology continues to evolve — has created endless wrangling and debate. In overly simplistic terms, copyright owners — many times large corporations that have invested hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars developing their works — would like to see protection of their copyrighted assets extended forever. On the other side of the argument, companies who benefit from the use, hosting and sharing of copyrighted works prefer liberal use without permission (or at least that someone other than them be charged with enforcement, when copyright laws are broken).

The question of how best to stop illegal activities in an inter-connected, virtual world impacts our profession on multiple levels. Public relations professionals are both users of copyrighted material, and creators of copyrighted materials that we gleefully encourage others to share without permission in the hopes they go “viral.” Certainly, we rely on the very websites that SOPA and PIPA would shutter as critical channels to communicate with and engage key audiences. And, in any case, isn’t the very nature of public relations, as protected by the First Amendment, to promote the free flow of information into the marketplace of ideas?

As creators, users and distributors of copyrighted material; as participants at the vanguard of social media; and as representatives and employees of companies and organizations that own (and would like to protect) intellectual property, there are an incredibly wide variety of interests across our profession. PRSA believes that these interests of all interested parties need to be balanced.

It is the opinion of PRSA that SOPA and PIPA as currently written overreach. As the President himself said via his personal Twitter account, “Protect intellectual property, but don’t threaten an open internet.” Indeed.

Consumers should have access to legitimate content. Copyright owners should have practical means of protecting their works that also consider and serve the public interest. And technology companies should be free from undue burdens.

We take today’s news that members of Congress wish to revise both bills as a hopeful sign of a renewed willingness to compromise in a way that balances the competing needs of all parties.

As the battles in this larger war continue, the representative interests in Washington should go back to the negotiating table and devise a solution that everyone can live with. They also would do well to tone down the hyperbole, the hysterics and the site blackouts, and instead enter into a reasoned and measured dialogue towards a solution. You know, do what public relations practitioners do every day: share different viewpoints to arrive at mutually beneficial solutions.

After all, movie companies have earned billions by creating a new business model based on the rental of “home entertainment” products like VCR tapes and DVDs, despite what Jack Valenti claimed.

If you’d like more balanced analysis of SOPA and PIPA, we highly recommend this article, painstakingly written by Chris Heald for Mashable.

William M. Murray, CAE, is PRSA’s president and chief operating officer.


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