Over the New Year's weekend, I was reminded of an old comedy record called The First Family, a hilarious and enormously popular spoof of the Kennedy administration from the early 1960s, pulled from circulation after JFK's assassination in 1963.
A friend in my age demographic had never heard of it. So I attached an MP3 file of one of the tracks I had made from my CD copy and emailed it to him.
In the wake of all the SOPA brouhaha, I got to thinking about this exchange. I wasn't selling the track or album to him; I didn't send him the entire album; I didn't post it anywhere where someone else might listen to it for nothing (though someone has, but I'm not telling you where).
But I felt dirty nonetheless.
While my First Family transgressions were relatively innocent, the interwebs are filled with files uploaded and downloaded with no regard to their copyrighted origins. Rich superstars comprise only a tiny fraction of media creators out there, and all the others involved, who eke out a living selling their creations, are already getting screwed by their Big Media corporate overlords.
Whether we like it or not, uploading or downloading a movie or a record album or a video game or software without paying for it is stealing just as much as strolling into a Wal-Mart, stuffing DVDs and CDs into your pants and strolling out without paying is.
Back in the day, record companies and artists sort of shrugged their shoulders at the whole High Fidelity idea of mix tape phenomena. They figured the person receiving said mix tape was never going to buy the album or CD in question anyway and, now exposed to the artist's music, they might be a customer at some point.
Plus, the frequency of this mix-tape making wasn't high enough to seriously impact record sales. Making a mix tape, or even a tape copy of an entire album, required some technical legerdemain, several pieces of expensive equipment and serious spare time — the creation time of a mix tape was longer than the time of the music copied (cuing up a record to the right spot to create only a one- or two-second gap between tracks on a mix tape was an art).
And in the CD era, the aural quality of the analog mix tape wasn't exactly stellar. If those at the mix-tape-receiving-end liked the music contained therein, they ended up buying the CD.
Flash forward to the age of Napster and the Internet. No longer were we making mix tapes only occasionally for that special someone. No longer did copying require some technical legerdemain, several pieces of equipment and real time. And no longer were copies inferior to the originals.
And so it is no wonder movie studios and record companies stopped simply shrugging their shoulders. Occasional copying of music, movies, games and software had morphed into industrialized mass production on a massive international scale and billions of dollars in losses to not only Big Media (boo hoo!) but to struggling artists and anyone associated with the creation of a copyrighted work.
Let me assert my opposition to SOPA and PIPA. Both acts were clearly written by nincompoops who wouldn't know a domain from lo mein. News Corp ogre Rupert Murdoch clearly missed the irony as he tweeted on how President Obama was in the sway of his Silicon Valley paymasters when supporters of SOPA and PIPA are so obviously in the sway of his and other Big Media paymasters.
On the other hand, I also am a book author, and I'd be really REALLY REALLY pissed off if I found someone had posted my modest opus online and made it available for free.
And there are a lot more minor content creators like me out there than there are Lady Gagas and Drakes.
Now that I think on it, forget my aforementioned Wal-Mart shoplifting analogy. Uploading and downloading copyrighted content for free access and making money on advertising revenue is akin to you walking into my home, stealing my book, then selling copies of it.
It's just that simple.
But I also recognize most of us don't know what is legal (or moral) behavior — often called "fair usage" — and what is illegal (or immoral) behavior. Plus, the Web and digital technology makes copying copyrighted content so damned easy that we all do it without thinking.
For instance, in one of the really great ironies of this whole SOPA/PIPA brouhaha, SOPA's author, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Tex), apparently was in violation of his own law. As a background for his Web site, he used a copyrighted photo from one DJ Schulte — without permission or attribution. (It's been changed to a plain gray background once this ironic story broke.)
Some of this copyright copying is taken to the ridiculous extreme, especially by content crooks operating sites and servers in China and Russia beyond the reach of American jurisprudence (hence the uselessness of current intellectual property laws).
SOPA and PIPA are ham-fisted attempts to stem this flaunting foreign tide. While SOPA's solutions are insane, it is clear something needs to be done.
So Congress will go back and try again. The Consumer Electronics Association (the folks who run CES) urge support and passage of the shockingly bi-partisan Digital Trade (OPEN) Act, which purports to more surgically target rogue foreign Web sites than employ the blunt punitive instruments wielded by SOPA or PIPA.
But at the same time, all interested parties — Silicon Valley, Congress, Big Media, artists, the Justice Department — need to change hearts and minds, to help us understand what behaviors are legal and illegal or even just hurtful to struggling artists and authors, to help us recognize infringing sites, and to make stealing digital content as socially unacceptable as pissing on the carpet (unless possessed).
So, yes, it's easy and fun to blame stupid Congress and the over-reaching Justice Department and greedy movie studios and record companies for SOPA and PIPA. But first we better look in the mirror. As Pogo used to say, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."