SOPA, PIPA, and New Media Art, by Cally! Womick

Most users of the Internet by now know about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), or House Bill 32611, and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011 (PROTECT IP Act or just PIPA), or Senate Bill 9682– after all, when English-language Wikipedia blacks out people are going to notice. Joining Wikipedia in the act of protest were such sites as Reddit, Google, Mincraft, and many others. At this point it would be quite a feat for any wired member of the English-speaking world not to know that, for once, the Internet community at large has rallied around a cause.

Opponents of SOPA and its Senate sister, PIPA, fear that such legislation would greatly inhibit the free flow of knowledge. Said Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, “SOPA and PIPA endanger free speech both in the United States and abroad, and set a frightening precedent of Internet censorship for the world.” The bills claim to provide protection for the public from online piracy, copyright infringement, and even counterfeit drugs. When cast in that light the bills seem reasonable, even friendly, but the rub comes in bounding them: if the American government can order Google to disable hyperlinks to pages which contain copyright infringement or other exploitative material, can it also order the same for Websites simply suspected of such? Could Sites containing hate speech be cut out? What about dissident domains?

In a world ever-more dependent on the free-flow of information for work, play, revolution, and everything in between it is a frightening thought that all it might take to wipe a Site- or an entire genre of content- from the Internet is the opinion of a someone able to convince the Attorney General to push the paperwork required to force all legitimate service providers to cease providing their services. For new media artists and the public that loves their work this is a particularly frightening prospect.

The nature of the medium lends itself to sampling pre-existing works, and artists do so unabashedly- often without thought for copyright law. A 2001 example of how such appropriation can be received (for better and worse) lays with Dino Ignacio, a then-high-school-student who used Photoshop to create a photomontage of found images of Bert (from the globally syndicated Sesame Street) and Osama Bin Ladin. He posted this work on his homepage, a Bangladesh publisher picked up the image in a web crawl for images to use on anti-American shirts and posters, protestors in the Middle East snapped them up, and CNN filmed them in action. When representatives of the Children’s Television Workshop (responsible for Sesame Street) saw the footage they vowed to take legal action against… someone.Bert Is Evil (with Osama Bin Ladin)

The Ignacio affair ended with the student taking his Website down of his own volition, given increased and unwanted global public scrutiny, but what of such artists whose work intentionally crosses the lines of what some may consider infallible copyright law? What would it mean for the government to forcibly remove an artist’s work from public view? In the interest of freedom and speech- both which, to date, are the laws of the Internet lands- it would mean something very, very bad.

1 Bill Summary & Status, 112th Congress (2011-2012), H. R. 3261.
2 Text of S 968: Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011.
3 Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, p. 1-2. Henry Jenkins.