Alex Sayf Cummings: Where Does the Anti-SOPA Movement Go next?

Roundup: Historians' Take

Alex Sayf Cummings is assistant professor of History at Georgia State University. His book on music piracy and intellectual property law is forthcoming from Oxford University Press, and he is a co-editor of the blog Tropics of Meta.

The last few weeks have witnessed a remarkable convergence of conflicts over copyright: the arrest of Megaupload mastermind “Kim Dotcom” in New Zealand, an unprecedented show of unity among Internet giants such as Wikipedia and Google to fight anti-piracy legislation in Congress, and similar protests in Poland against new copyright measures.  In a world wracked by recession, war and revolution, a topic oft-dismissed by journalists as “arcane” — copyright — has surged to the top of the political agenda.

Indeed, supporters of anti-piracy legislation in Congress have confessed their ignorance of how copyright and the Internet work, saying the details were best left to the “nerds.” Lawmakers soon heard from the nerds, though, as an online insurgency spread to thwart the Stop Online Piracy Act, galvanizing opposition across the political spectrum in a novel way, from the Creative Commons left to right-wing blogs such as RedState. The campaign epitomizes a promising new turn in American politics, as critics of intellectual property law finally find an audience and, more important, the makings of a political constituency.

It was not always so, to say the least.  Advocates of stronger copyright won an almost unbroken string of legislative and political triumphs since the early 1970s. A burst of piracy in the late 1960s, stimulated by the ease of recording on magnetic tape and the appearance of bootlegs of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, prompted Congress to extend protection to sound recordings in 1971.  Thus began a continual expansion of the powers of copyright, with the term of protection extended from a maximum of 56 years to the life of the author plus 50 years in 1976, and another 20 years added in 1998....

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