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"Put Your Bodies Upon the Gears and Upon the Wheels": Martin Luther King and SOPA/PIPA

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 19, 2012 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 19, 2012 |

Oh, hello! It’s kind of you to drop by this morning, taking a break from hitting the “random article” link on the sidebar of Wikipedia in order to soothe the vestiges of yesterday’s withdrawal. Admit it in the comments, how many times did you automatically pop a browser yesterday and hit Wikipedia for something in your browser search bar? I think I did it six times.

In the wake of Seth’s fantastic article on the subject, I thought you might enjoy a wee example of just how screwed up copyright law is in this country, especially in light of SOPA and PIPA.

Have you ever tried watching Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on YouTube? It’s up there, you can find it, but there’s only a couple of copies of it instead of the dozens that you might expect. The reason is that the King estate holds the copyright on that video. And they can issue take down notices when it’s used without permission, because they charge $10 per copy for that speech on their website. And that’s the case through 2038, because copyright law lasts for 70 years after death. Born nearly twenty years after one of the great speeches of humanity and democracy, I will be a senior citizen before I can legally watch it. Well, really I’ll be dead, because Disney will get copyright extended long before then to protect their cursed mouse.

And while that might be a damning enough, think about that in the context of SOPA/PIPA, which make it a felony not just to have copyrighted content on a site, but to have links to that site. If these laws pass, the owners of YouTube have committed a felony for having a video of Martin Luther King’s speech. If one of you embeds that video on your blog, you have committed a felony. If you post a comment on Pajiba and put your blog’s URL into the website box, then Dustin has committed a felony. Hell, I’ve probably committed a felony already according to SOPA/PIPA because I didn’t spend two hours trying to figure out if that photo up top had been officially released into the public domain by the photographer’s estate. All for posting the words of peace of a man gunned down over four decades ago.

A lot of people roll their eyes at folks getting up in arms about these bills, insisting that such things pop up in Congress every few years, and then get inevitably dropped by the outrage, and thus conclude that people shouldn’t get so worked up about them. But that’s faulty logic. These things fail exactly because the people take up metaphorical arms over them. It’s a process, this little thing called democracy, we really do have to fight for it day by day.

Think of it this way, the machinery of state necessary for tracking down and destroying the life of any citizen who says something that is copyrighted is indistinguishable from the machinery necessary to do the same thing to someone who says something that the government simply does not like. That machinery cannot be allowed to exist in a free society. The fact that it is being forged under the auspices of protecting art is all the more sinister, for a society with that machinery is not one that will long produce art, nor anything that relies on freedom.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.