PIPA/SOPA could wipe underground hip-hop off of the face of the internet
January 18, 2012
Let’s be straight – hip-hop has never been observant of intellectual property rights. We sample old records, we sample new records, and we sample each other. We take breaks from the 70’s, synth riffs from the 80’s, and hip-hop beats in the 90’s and we rhyme over them. Hell, we quote lines from old rap songs to create new ones. We take and repurpose, and we taught the world how copying and pasting is a form of art. Right now, there are two bills in Congress likely to pass that would not just make it illegal but criminalizes this core value of hip-hop, and they’re called Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA).
The two bills are versions of the same bill with minor differences. Both were pushed into Congress by entertainment industry lobbyists who want to clamp down on the estimated \$125 billion-a-year losses they incur because of online piracy. Both appear to have favorable chances of passing and have bipartisan support. Both however have extreme provisions that can harm the freedom of expression and give the industry new powers to punish its own customers and drastically alter the internet for the worse.
If that sounds extreme, well we are talking about an industry that abuses its powers and has a record of doing so. If you remember several years ago, the RIAA sued grandmothers and children alike for file-sharing using provisions and penalties meant for bootleggers who profit from selling illegal copies. Suing a 12-year old girl for using Kazaa didn’t make much money, just a \$2000 settlement, but it did what they wanted to accomplish, which was to instill a sense of fear and apprehension among music consumers.
And what powers it has already, granted by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) a decade ago, has been abused before. Universal Music Group late last year apparently used its DMCA powers to takedown a video on YouTube that they had absolutely no credible claim on just because it promoted MegaUpload, a file-sharing service which they accuse of spreading pirated material. The video (later reposted by others) featured Diddy, Kanye West, Snoop Dogg, Alicia Keys, Macy Gray and a completely original (and frankly, nearly unlistenable) musical composition, yet UMG took down the video because it did not want established and recognizable music stars to lend a bit of their shine to a site they consider rogue. That episode is one of many documented examples of the DMCA being abused by record labels and other corporations.
What SOPA and PIPA would do that goes beyond DMCA is that it would be a felony with a max five-year sentence to post infringing material online, including sampling or even singing a copyrighted song, Justin Bieber style. The act of instructing people how to find infringing material would also be criminalized, which appears on the face to be a violation of free speech and the First Amendment. But not only would people who upload and post infringing materials get heat, but sites that host the content would also held liable, something not in DMCA, forcing them to review and censor the content their users write or upload. The DMCA merely required sites to remove such content after receiving a complaint but did not penalize them for what their users might upload or post, nor required them to actively censor material.
The bills would also stack the deck against defendants in piracy complaints. For instance, if you’re a website operator with a lawsuit slapped on you and you don’t show up in court, the court must immediately rule in favor of the plaintiff and order Google to delist your site from the web and take away your ad revenue. So, if you don’t lawyer up right away, you’re screwed. Not only that, the plaintiff can bring up any sort of nonsense and the court is prohibited from making sure the case has any merit if the case is unopposed. This allows a sizable amount of abuse and grants intellectual property owners new levels of power to intimidate. Conceivably, a startup that is seen as a competitor to a media company, or any small fry viewed as a nuisance, could be harassed and bullied with a complaint, forcing them to needlessly spend thousands on lawyer fees.
And here is the issue. If the ultimate goal is fear, then we don’t need to see cases of industry lawyers and law enforcement running rampant to feel an impact. Big time sites like YouTube, which has become crucial to emerging hip-hop artists right now (look at 2dopeboyz.com, okayplayer.com and even our homepage and see how dependent we all are on YouTube), could conceivably ban all music videos not posted by the big record labels to avoid any possible legal action. Facebook, Twitter and Vimeo could also start blacklisting. Soundcloud would probably stop everyone but lawyers from posting songs. And even worse, YouTube, Facebook, Google, Twitter and other sites would be protected and suffer no consequences if they “overblock” and take down legitimate, non-infringing material. Such victims of overzealous enforcement would have no recourse, and sites are encouraged to err on the side of censorship.
You know that Yasiin Bey freestyle that used the “Niggas in Paris” beat that we posted yesterday? Well, the Mighty Mos would have a felony rap and five in a federal pen, and I’d be his cellmate. But doing what Yasiin did is undeniably at the core of hip-hop, there isn’t a emcee alive that have never freestyled over a beat that they have no technical legal rights to, and probably just as many who haven’t recorded themselves doing so. Yet, something like that could not just only get you sued or get you a misdemeanor charge, you could be convicted of a felony and lose your voting rights. And if you’re an unknown producer sampling records to make beats? It would be impossible to share your beat tape online if you value the freedoms you still have.
Lets face it, hip-hop is better the last five years because of the emergence of social media and the internet. Do we really expect to see gems like Kendrick Lamar and Big K.R.I.T. to emerge if all we got was terrestrial radio and cable TV, controlled by giant media conglomerates, like it was in the late 90’s? In the end, hip-hop is a rugged species built by survivors, and it will survive if SOPA or PIPA passes. But it probably won’t be better off. And the hip-hop left on the internet will need to be rubber stamped and approved by corporations.
PIPA is due for a vote in the Senate on January 24. Read more about PIPA/SOPA at sopablackout.org, American Censorship and The Electronic Frontier Foundation. Take action and contact your elected officials at blacklist.eff.org.
Want to get a more general overview of PIPA/SOPA? Check out this video below.