The danger of relying on Wikipedia for valid information was on worldwide display this week, as operators of the famous site shut it down for 24 hours Wednesday to protest — along with others such as Google and Yahoo — a couple of proposed laws being pondered in Washington, D.C.
Wikipedia’s homepage screen was black, with the message, “For over a decade, we have spent millions of hours building the largest encyclopedia in human history. Right now, the U.S. Congress is considering legislation that could fatally damage the free and open
Internet. For 24 hours, to raise awareness, we are blacking out Wikipedia.”
Wikipedia’s voluntary blackout received wide news coverage. The objects of its protestations are the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act.
Strangely enough, the Wikipedia people apparently did not consult their own page describing the principles and laws of copyright.
Instead, they resorted to rhetoric about censorship, and warnings that the U.S. legislation “infringes free expression while harming the Internet.”
Odd expression, that: “harming the Internet.” It’s as if they think the Internet is a living, breathing being, rather than simply a fabulous tool made possible by terrific technology.
News stories about the one-day blackout centred on the protesters’ concern that Internet content would be censored and controlled by the U.S. government.
Again, the Wikipedia crowd should have looked up “censorship” on their own site.
The crux of the issue is two words: “free” and “content.”
Users of the Internet have long been accustomed to it being free (other than paying a fee to one’s provider), mainly because it took a while for the computer geeks to figure out a way to bill individuals for their usage.
And because the technology was, and is, so awesomely impressive, few people gave, or give, much thought to where the content comes from.
But just because you read, or watch, something on a computer screen doesn’t mean the principles of creative ownership are null and void. All it means is that the laws of creative ownership are practically unenforceable (for now).
The premise of copyright is that a creator retains control over usage of and income from the thing (song, book, artwork, movie, etc.) that he or she created.
Massive and illegal distribution over the Internet of copyrighted material is most often defended by pointing out that the copyright owners are already filthy rich — rock stars and movie studios, usually.
It is a ridiculous, illogical argument. Try it in court and see how far it gets you. The level of their bank account is irrelevant.
Pay to play
If Wikipedia, Google and Yahoo and the bunch of other Internet multimillionaires — there’s that argument again — want to use copyrighted material, there is a simple way for them to do so: pay for it.
The bedazzling nature of the Internet has fooled some people into thinking, erroneously, that certain principles are outdated — this being the computer age and the 21st century and all. Wrong, on all counts. Some accused libelers are now finding out, to their surprise and displeasure, that the courts can, and will, enforce laws against libel for comments made via computer screen every bit as much as if they were made in print or in front of a camera or microphone.
Wikipedia, Google, Yahoo, et al, portray themselves as heroes fighting against censorship. They are not. On the contrary, their actions perpetuate and reinforce contempt for creators, and for creators’ right to be financially compensated for their work.
Most writers, musicians, artists, etc. are not rich, and need — and deserve — every bit of income they can get from their work. You could probably look it up on Wikipedia.
Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.