Edi­tor’s Note: The fol­low­ing is the text of a let­ter sent by NPI to the offices of U.S. Sen­a­tors Pat­ty Mur­ray of Wash­ing­ton and Jeff Merkley of Ore­gon this morning.

Dear Sen­a­tors Mur­ray and Merkley:

On behalf of the team at the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute, I am writ­ing to express our strong oppo­si­tion to two bills cur­rent­ly before Con­gress that we believe would stop inno­va­tion and erode dig­i­tal free­dom. These bills – H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Pira­cy Act (SOPA) and S. 968, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) – have been mov­ing towards the Sen­ate and House floors for sev­er­al months, but have not received much pub­lic debate or scruti­ny until very recently.

Although these bills are not iden­ti­cal, they con­tain many sim­i­lar­i­ties, and we believe each deserves to be reject­ed –  a view shared by GoogleYahoo, AOL, eBay, Twit­ter, Face­book, OpenDNS, the Free Soft­ware Foun­da­tion, Mozil­la, Tum­blr, the Elec­tron­ic Fron­tier Foun­da­tion, Pub­lic Knowl­edge, the Cen­ter for Democ­ra­cy and Tech­nol­o­gy, Free Press, MoveOn.org, Dai­ly Kos, LinkedIn, Zyn­ga, and many oth­er com­pa­nies, indi­vid­u­als, and orga­ni­za­tions. (See a more com­plete list).

“These bills were writ­ten by the con­tent indus­try with­out any input from the tech­nol­o­gy indus­try. And they are try­ing to fast-track them through Con­gress and into law with­out any nego­ti­a­tion with the tech­nol­o­gy industry.”

Ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Fred Wil­son, Octo­ber 29th, 2011

The pur­pose of these bills is osten­si­bly to pro­vide bet­ter reme­dies under fed­er­al law to deal with cas­es of copy­right and trade­mark infringe­ment. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, these bills, PIPA and SOPA, were draft­ed by the enter­tain­ment indus­try, for the enter­tain­ment indus­try – with­out broad input.

They are so flawed, in fact, that an increas­ing num­ber of artists and musi­cians are speak­ing out to make it clear that pow­er­ful trade groups like the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, the Motion Pic­ture Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­ca (MPAA), and the Record­ing Indus­try Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­ca (RIAA) do not speak for them.

Dig­i­tal free­dom, net neu­tral­i­ty, user con­sent, and inter­op­er­abil­i­ty are all pol­i­cy direc­tions that NPI cares deeply about. Before NPI exist­ed phys­i­cal­ly – before it exist­ed legal­ly – it exist­ed vir­tu­al­ly, as an idea on the world wide web. That idea – to build a think tank with the soul of a tech start­up – could not have tak­en root or been embraced by a larg­er group of peo­ple with­out the Internet.

It is no exag­ger­a­tion to say that NPI, like many of the afore­men­tioned com­pa­nies and orga­ni­za­tions, owes its exis­tence to the Inter­net – a rev­o­lu­tion­ary medi­um for com­mu­ni­ca­tion unlike any oth­er humankind has ever invented.

“What the bills pro­pose would be akin to requir­ing the phone com­pa­ny to be respon­si­ble for the legal­i­ty of every phone call that takes place. With that kind of reg­u­la­tion, com­pa­nies will spend more on lawyers and lit­i­ga­tion than they will on hir­ing and inno­vat­ing. Exist­ing laws like the Dig­i­tal Mil­len­ni­um Copy­right Act already pro­vide a sat­is­fac­to­ry legal frame­work to remove copy­right infringe­ment and enforce intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty rights.” 

David Ule­vitch, the CEO of OpenDNS, the world’s largest DNS and Inter­net secu­ri­ty service.

Pri­or to the cre­ation of the Inter­net, an artist or an activist had to go through gate­keep­ers to get pub­lished or get on-air.

Com­mer­cial print­ing press­es, radio sta­tions, and tele­vi­sion net­works were – and still are – con­trolled by gatekeepers.

But the Inter­net is dif­fer­ent. The Inter­net allows peo­ple to get their ideas out with­out hav­ing to go through a gate­keep­er. In a mat­ter of hours, any­one who wants to make his or her voice heard can set up a blog on Word­Press or Tum­blr, cre­ate a social net­work­ing account on Twit­ter or Face­book, or join a wiki… and begin build­ing an audi­ence. And mil­lions of peo­ple have done just that.

Besides allow­ing peo­ple to freely share ideas, the Inter­net has also allowed peo­ple to freely share soft­ware, movies, music, games, books, and oth­er cre­ative works which are often lumped togeth­er under the label con­tent or intel­lec­tu­al prop­er­ty. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the enter­tain­ment indus­try often makes it sound as if all online shar­ing on the Inter­net is hap­pen­ing against the wish­es of rights hold­ers. (Fre­quent­ly, spokes­peo­ple for the indus­try equate the words online shar­ing with a more omi­nous-sound­ing word… pira­cy). But this is sim­ply not the case.

Many artists, activists, and orga­ni­za­tions (includ­ing NPI) active­ly encour­age the shar­ing of their cre­ative works and make this legal­ly pos­si­ble by using what is known as a copy­left license – such as Cre­ative Com­mons or the GNU GPL.

The word copy­left is a play on the word copy­right, and it refers to the idea of using copy­right law to encour­age shar­ing and reuse under cer­tain con­di­tions (some rights reserved vs. all rights reserved). The author or cre­ator of the work retains the copy­right, but through the license, grants per­mis­sion for the song, book, video, pho­to­graph, com­put­er pro­gram, record­ing, paper, or oth­er work to be repro­duced and shared by any­one who would like to enjoy it – through the world wide web, through peer-to-peer net­works, through email, or through oth­er means.

Most of NPI’s works are released under a Cre­ative Com­mons copy­left license which requires attri­bu­tion and addi­tion­al­ly spec­i­fies that all reuse of our mate­ri­als must be noncommercial.

It is no acci­dent that a good deal of the oppo­si­tion to Pro­tect IP and SOPA stems from with­in what Cre­ative Com­mons founder Lawrence Lessig has called the free cul­ture move­ment – a world­wide social and polit­i­cal move­ment that believes deeply in the free exchange of ideas and information.

The free cul­ture move­ment also believes that dra­con­ian copy­right laws lead to a sit­u­a­tion that Colum­bia Law School Pro­fes­sor Michael Heller calls the tragedy of the anti­com­mons – the waste of a resource due to too much ownership.

“By mak­ing cul­ture too hard to assem­ble, we silent­ly dimin­ish our own col­lec­tive wealth. And the great­est harm occurs along the fron­tiers of inno­va­tion, includ­ing artis­tic expres­sion,” Heller says in his 2008 book The Grid­lock Economy.

Copy­left can help pre­vent tragedies of the anti­com­mons, but the pos­i­tive con­tri­bu­tion to free cul­ture that copy­left is cur­rent­ly mak­ing could be can­celed out by PIPA or SOPA.

Either of these bills, if enact­ed, would hin­der inno­va­tion, sti­fle free expres­sion, and endan­ger Amer­i­ca’s moral stand­ing by sup­press­ing speech with­out prop­er notice and hear­ing, break­ing the infra­struc­ture of the Inter­net, and under­min­ing U.S. lead­er­ship in the world com­mu­ni­ty on civ­il lib­er­ties issues.

House Demo­c­ra­t­ic Leader Nan­cy Pelosi has cre­at­ed a fit­ting hash­tag on Twit­ter that apt­ly sum­ma­rizes the posi­tion of those of us opposed to these bills: #Dont­Break­TheIn­ter­net.

“Although the prob­lems the Act attempts to address – online copy­right and trade­mark infringe­ment – are seri­ous ones pre­sent­ing new and dif­fi­cult enforce­ment chal­lenges, the approach tak­en in the Act has grave con­sti­tu­tion­al infir­mi­ties, poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous con­se­quences for the sta­bil­i­ty and secu­ri­ty of the Inter­net’s address­ing sys­tem, and will under­mine Unit­ed States for­eign pol­i­cy and strong sup­port of free expres­sion on the Inter­net around the world.”

Excerpt from a let­ter oppos­ing Pro­tect IP and SOPA, signed by more than more than a hun­dred of the most respect­ed law pro­fes­sors from across the Unit­ed States

The Inter­net is the great­est con­duit for free cul­ture that has ever exist­ed. We must pro­tect and strength­en it, not crip­ple it. These bills – Pro­tect IP and SOPA – amount to the prover­bial cure that’s worse than the disease.

Your seat­mates in the Unit­ed States Sen­ate – Maria Cantwell and Ron Wyden – are already on record as opposed to these bills.

In a let­ter to Sen­a­tors Har­ry Reid and Mitch McConnell (also signed by Repub­li­cans Rand Paul of Ken­tucky and Jer­ry Moran of Kansas), they write:

We are par­tic­u­lar­ly con­cerned that the pro­pos­al autho­rizes the use of reme­dies that will under­mine the infra­struc­ture of the Internet.

The nation’s lead­ing tech­nol­o­gists and secu­ri­ty experts say these pro­vi­sions will kill our best hope for actu­al­ly mak­ing the Inter­net more secure against cyber attacks. We take seri­ous­ly the alarm expressed by the nation’s lead­ing investors in new online star­tups who say the pro­pos­al will damp­en inter­est in financ­ing the new ideas and busi­ness­es of tomor­row, and to legal and human rights experts who cau­tion that the pro­pos­al enables the silenc­ing of speech.

We ask that you join Sen­a­tors Cantwell, Wyden, Paul, and Moran in pub­licly tak­ing posi­tions against PIPA and SOPA. We believe unit­ed oppo­si­tion to these bills from the Pacif­ic North­west­’s del­e­ga­tion would help spur our nation to have a more open, con­struc­tive con­ver­sa­tion about how to min­i­mize copy­right and trade­mark infringe­ment with­out endan­ger­ing dig­i­tal freedom.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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