Editor’s Note: On October 26, 2011, H.R. 3261 – or the Stop Online Piracy Act – was introduced in the United States House of Representatives, aiming to stop “foreign online criminals from stealing and selling America’s intellectual property and keeping the profits for themselves.” Many organizations are protesting this bill as its language threatens the infrastructure of the Internet – and the existence of any organization directly related to the Internet (including Open Educational Resources). The Saylor Foundation joins these organization and the Open Education community in standing in opposition to the passage of SOPA. Many of our staff members are watching intensely as this bill progresses: Stephen Phillips, our Senior Permissions Coordinator, penned this editorial on why SOPA should be stopped.
Its opponents have labeled it draconian, invasive and unconstitutional, asserting that its passage would bring us one step closer to an Orwellian future. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has claimed that it would “criminalize linking and threatens the fundamental structure of the Internet itself.” It has even been compared to the Great Firewall of China, an institution that limits free speech and information within China on a daily basis. I am, of course, talking about the Stop Online Piracy Act, commonly known as SOPA.
SOPA was created ostensibly to combat foreign piracy sites, such as thepiratebay.org, that provide links to illegal copies of movies, television shows and other materials protected by copyright. Opponents of the bill claim that its origin was born out of the desire to protect the distribution companies’ antiquated business model. For the short history of mass media, content producers – educators, artists, authors and inventors — have all been forced to rely on the “old gods” of the distribution industry – Hollywood, record labels, publishing companies – to get their achievements out to the masses. However, with the advent of the Internet, these creative minds, these vanguards of the human spirit, have found a new avenue by which they can share their genius.
Unfortunately, the true ramifications of the passage of SOPA are much more frightening. In a dismal future where SOPA is passed, the liability for hosting any material protected by copyright is transferred from the user to the website. This legislation would empower the government to block any website, foreign or domestic, that links to another site that contains fraudulently posted materials. These drastic changes are imminent: the House Judiciary Committee plans to vote on this bill in early 2012.
At the Saylor Foundation, we build free, web-based courses using different types of content. We host openly licensed content and point our users to amazing (but copyrighted) learning modules made freely available on the web. While creating our free courses, we have always taken great care to avoid the use of legally dubious materials. However, in many cases, our materials come from websites built with user-created content, independent professors’ course notes and exceptional YouTube videos – and we rely on the integrity of these content developers and website managers.
This atmosphere of mutual trust has fostered a grey area between the totally open (public domain) and the permanently closed (ironclad copyright of the larger publishing companies). SOPA holds the power to change this dynamic for Saylor.org and websites like it. If Congress passes this legislation, it would render the educational materials in the gray area toxic to the Saylor Foundation: the use of these materials might not be worth the effort it would take to verify them. According to the Concerned Educators Letter to Congress, signed by Open Education enthusiasts and esteemed university professors alike, the very content generated and assembled by open content providers like Saylor.org, Connexions, YouTube, and P2PU could cause these organizations to be shut down, should SOPA go into effect. This act would effectively bring the efforts of those championing the Open Education movement to a halt.
The repercussions of this bill would be felt not only by the Saylor Foundation and the Open Education community, but also by the throngs of students who rely on the free open educational resources (OER) found on these sites. Every day millions of individuals, who had previously been barred from or abandoned by the traditional educational model, are advancing themselves because of the opportunities afforded to them by the Open Education movement. SOPA would only serve to amplify the accessibility gap which so many organizations are working to close.
The Internet is a powerful tool for collaborative thought, endeavor, and (most importantly for education) accessibility. Its potential impact is limited only by our collective imagination. Organizations like Creative Commons have already made stalwart efforts to bring down the walls established by traditional copyright providers that have for too long limited innovation and access in the interest of profit. The Saylor Foundation embraces the societal changes that the Internet has the potential to bring and hopes that institutional shortsightedness does not jeopardize the bright future on the horizon.
Photo credit, chadgoode