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updated: 1/19/2012 5:58 AM

The pirates who would drown us in the Sea of Nothing

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Wikipedia and a handful of other important global websites went dark Wednesday to protest legislation in Congress that they see as overly broad and potentially dangerous to free speech. Would that these sites were as concerned about the problem Congress wants to address as they are about efforts to address it.

Congress is due to take up this month -- possibly as early as next Tuesday in the Senate -- legislation that attempts to control online piracy of copyrighted material. Traditional media companies -- most notably for the purposes of this specific fight film, record and entertainment companies but also information providers like the Daily Herald and other newspapers with websites -- have been crying foul for years because of the relative ease with which various types of interlopers can abscond with their creations, slap on it their own nameplate and then pass it off from their own advertising-supported website or resell it as their own. Hollywood and the television/movie industry, in particular, are upset because so much of their product is stolen and repackaged for distribution overseas.

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But the issue is broader even than that, and, as Wikipedia and its supporters emphasize, it really strikes at the foundations of how information and entertainment will be underwritten and distributed in the future.

Here's how it shakes out from the Daily Herald's point of view: We do an immense amount of work to get advertisers and customers to provide us income that enables us to hire employees who do an immense amount of work to get information and ideas that you will find authoritative, entertaining and vital to your everyday life. Not only do we resent it when other companies or websites who didn't have those initial investment costs pick up our work and our employees' work and pass it off as their own, essentially fencing it at Midnight Auto Supply prices, but it cuts into our ability to keep producing the work we produce.

Taken to its logical conclusion, the practice puts us information providers out of business because we can't compete with companies selling our work at prices well below our costs of production. It is rather like the vacuum cleaner beast in the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine that sucks up everything around until there is nothing left in the picture but itself. When it sucks itself up, just to complete the metaphor, it winds up in the Sea of Nothing.

We don't want to wind up there. More importantly, you, if you care about ready access to information about your local government, your state, your world and your culture, don't want us to end up there. The pirates, though, don't mind. They're playing a different short-term game, and it's easier for them to dodge and weave while the legitimate players -- including, I would emphasize, Wikipedia, Google and other opponents of the Congressional legislation -- wage a free-speech battle over how to stop them.

At their websites, many of the legislation's opponents offer a broad overview of this debate. They are probably right that the existing approach is overly broad and needs important refinements to protect the legitimate flow of information in the Internet Age and to guard against government censorship. But they barely give lip service to the gravity of the problem the federal law would combat.

It's good that they've given this somewhat arcane issue more attention than it likely would ever get otherwise. Now, if they are truly committed to the uninhibited flow of information and entertainment, they will go beyond criticizing those who would end piracy and take an active part in winning the battle.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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