By Phil Hill
UPDATE 12/23: Per the House Judiciary Committee, it is now confirmed that these companies are on the record supporting SOPA and the Protect IP companion legislation.
Yesterday the House Judiciary Committee began the process of marking up the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) bill. From all appearances, most of the amendments have been rejected, thus leaving SOPA essentially in its original form. While passage is not assured, it is certainly a possibility as described by CNET.
After a marathon debate on the Stop Online Piracy Act, it’s clear that the Hollywood-backed bill enjoys enthusiastic support among key members of the U.S. House of Representatives and is one step closer to becoming law.
That became obvious after every legislative attempt to defang, rewrite, or significantly alter SOPA over nearly a 12-hour period today ended in victories for large copyright holders–and defeat upon defeat for the bill’s critics.
While the SOPA impacts are not fully understood, there are some real dangers to educational usage that we need to follow. As described in my first post on the subject, SOPA could have a major impact on institutions using any form of educational technology to share content outside of a tightly-controlled password-protected course site. As we saw at EDUCAUSE this year, much of the potential of educational technology is to facilitate sharing of content outside of the traditional “walled gardens” of traditional LMS solutions, and enabling collaboration more broadly.
This year’s EDUCAUSE keynote speaker, Seth Godin, has a post up at The Domino Project that calls out many of the list of “companies behind one of the lobbying groups pushing for SOPA”. On this list, lo and behold, we find most of the educational publishing companies.
Pearson Education, Cengage Learning, McGraw-Hill Education, Macmillan, Scholastic, etc. They are all on the list.
(ed. – To be fair, very few companies are officially supporting SOPA legislation, as it is mostly lobbying groups providing the support. I could not find corroboration for these claims, so I am assuming that The Domino Project is providing an accurate list. If I find out differently, I’ll update this post.)
While no one should be surprised that education publishers support SOPA, as the bill is designed to protect content and media companies, I suspect that this support will come back to haunt these supporters. There is a strong backlash growing against SOPA, and if it is enacted as law, this backlash will grow exponentially.
Cory Doctorow wrote in Publisher’s Weekly about a key aspect of SOPA that is relevant to education.
As bad as this is, it gets worse: SOPA would also expand the definition of copyright infringement to include hosting a single link to a site that is alleged to contain infringing material. Thus, if an author’s blog, or a book discussion group, attracts a single post that contains a single link that goes to a site that someone accuses of copyright infringement, that site becomes one with the alleged infringer, and faces all the same sanctions—without any proof required, or due process.
Now think about the big move in education for open content and user-generated content. How would schools or platform hosting companies be able to police all the content if they are liable for infringement? The answer is that they couldn’t in a realistic manner. Cory continues . . .
Yet the services that provide the bulk of these benefits—search engines, Web hosts, and online service providers like Blogger, Tumblr, Twitter, Wikipedia, and YouTube—could never satisfy the requirements set out in SOPA. The only way for these platforms to satisfy SOPA would be to all but shut off the public’s ability to contribute and to throttle free expression for all but those entities that can afford to pay a lawyer to certify that their uploaded material will not attract a copyright complaint.
I would add educational platforms such as LMS solutions to this list of providers. By supporting SOPA through their lobbying groups, the educational publishers risk undercutting their own internal efforts to encourage open content and collaboration including user-generated content. This could push us back towards the walled gardens that we want to leave. As an example of undercutting efforts, consider Pearson’s free OpenClass LMS announced at EDUCAUSE this year. Inside Higher Ed’s Joshua Kim made an excellent point about needing to understand Pearson’s business interests.
A free LMS will always be suspect to decision makers on campuses unless we can be convinced that the provider is in the game for the long-term, and is investing enough resources in the business to ensure high levels of service, support, and robustness. We will not be convinced unless we truly believe that the free LMS is in the long term business and financial interests of the provider.
I would add that it is also important that the provider’s business interests align with educational institution interests. Based on SOPA support, it could become quite difficult for Pearson to convince people that OpenClass is open and can encourage collaboration. Pearson owns and maintains the site. What happens when someone claims that one of the courses on OpenClass violates copyright and demands that Pearson take action? Given their liability under SOPA, what would prevent Pearson from determining that it is far safer to only allow publisher-provided content to be shared outside of a single course, since publishers have the resources to QA the content and check on all copyrights? Under the circumstances, I wouldn’t blame them.
SOPA support thus could stifle innovation at educational publishers, erode confidence and support from the educational community as the corporate motivations become clear, and actually hamper the necessary moves to meet the industry needs for collaboration and open content.
In my opinion, antagonizing your customer base and undercutting strategic moves such as OpenClass is a poor long-term decision. The publishers’ support for SOPA could permanently harm their ability to be viewed as potential change agents helping the education industry move to new models. I sincerely hope that we find that the educational publishers
are not actually supporting SOPA, or perhaps that they wake up and change course as Microsoft did.
In an excellent post at The Plashing Vole, the author makes the following point that captures how piracy should be handled.
A long time ago, John Milton wrote Areopagitica. In it, he opposed the pre-licensing of newspaper articles by governments as an attack on free speech. Instead, he wrote, one should publish and be damned: allow publication, then argue about it in court later. That way speech is free while piracy is punished.
UPDATE: Fixed error in bill name, fixed link to Godin post, removed reference to Senate