Three days in January 2012 witnessed some of the most important events in recent history in the world of copyright.
On January 18, the Supreme Court issued Golan v. Holder, which held that Congress is empowered remove works like the symphony classic Peter and the Wolf from the public domain in the United States, preventing orchestras, musicians and others from using these works unless they get permission and pay a license fee to the copyright holders.
On the same day, the technology community mobilized millions of people to voice their disagreement with SOPA and PIPA, two bills supported by the entertainment industry that were designed to fight online piracy. After blackouts by Wikipedia and protests encouraged by tech giants like Google, by January 19 most members of Congress had withdrawn their support for both bills.
On January 20, the United States arrested Kim Dotcom. He was arrested in Auckland, New Zealand for a file-sharing site called Megaupload.com that was based in Hong Kong. The site allegedly generated over $175 million by illegally copying and distributing music, movies and other copyrighted material without authorization.
What does all of this tell us? Three important things.
First, protection of our country’s intellectual property relies on international cooperation. For us to arrest Mr. Dotcom, who is alleged to have stolen millions from American content creators, we needed the help of authorities in Hong Kong and New Zealand. Which is where Golan v. Holder comes in: no one likes hearing that Peter and the Wolf and other classics have fallen out of the public domain and back into exclusive ownership, but for our country to benefit from international copyright treaties, we also must abide by them. International treaties are what prompted Congress to pull certain works out of the public domain, and what prompted the Supreme Court to reach the conclusion it reached in that lawsuit.
Second, if we didn’t recognize it before the rise and fall of SOPA and PIPA, there’s no denying the tension between content creators and content providers; between the entertainment industry and the technology industry. Our technology is intertwined with our entertainment and our content, so we need these camps to work together. Unfortunately for now, the tension is insurmountable: technology camps want free flow of information while content creators want protection for their original works. Ultimately, these two teams will have to reach a compromise, and Congress cannot ignore the need to protect American intellectual property from online international piracy, like the theft allegedly coordinated by Mr. Dotcom.
Finally, the online protests of SOPA and PIPA mobilized a new segment of concerned citizens. Google claims it gathered over seven million signatures in 24 hours in opposition to the bills. The implications of that statistic are simultaneously infinite, impressive and intimidating.