A billowing controversy pitting Will.i.am, his label Universal and the popular file-sharing site MegaUpload against each other looks like it could be the first battle on the front lines of Congress's war on piracy. The situation is a little bit confusing and involves a promotional video, not-so-creatively titled "MegaUpload Mega Song," that may or may not be a pretty well-positioned protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) which is on the agenda of a House Judiciary Committee meeting on Thursday morning. Bear with us. There be devilish details.
Will.i.am is basically stuck in the middle of a fight between Universal and MegaUpload. "Mega Song" went viral last week and and a number of other hip-hop stars like Will.i.am, Snoop Dogg, Kanye and, for some reason, Kim Kardashian singing the praises of the file-sharing site. As a report circulated that Will.i.am had filed a complaint about MegaUpload not owning the rights to his likeness — which is crazy because he clearly stars in the video — Universal successfully issued a Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown request. That was swiftly countered by a lawsuit from the Hong Kong-based MegaUpload claiming that it indeed did own the rights and even had appearance consent and release agreements on file for all of the artists. In a federal court filing on Thursday, MegaUpload included the form Will.i.am signed back in September giving permission, and suddenly, it looks like Universal might be involved in a lawsuit they can't win. And the label stands to lose a ton of money in the process.
If this is a protest against SOPA it's a brilliant one. You have a piece of intellectual property that's not really copyrighted and one of the labels that's been supporting SOPA yanks it off the Internet. (Don't worry, the Internet found a way to upload about a dozen more copies to YouTube in no time. It's embedded below.) The video is definitely a MegaUpload promo but given the timing of its release, around the peak of the protests against SOPA and just a few days before the bill is set to clear committee in the House, it's been read as evidence that these very famous artists support file-sharing. Kanye calls MegaUpload, "the fastest and safest way to send files," and Snoop says, "it keeps the kids off the street." The video is no masterpiece — in fact, it's quite awful — but the extent to which Universal chased it down and guarded its ownership over its artists likenesses shows how aggressively Hollywood is willing to pursue even potential copyright violations. Again, Universal stands to fork over a decently sized settlement if they lose their lawsuit against MegaUpload, but the label also looks a little evil for suing a file-sharing site over a silly promo video.
This isn't the only SOPA-related stumble from the entertainment industry. Earlier this week, the (actively anti-SOPA) website TorrentFreak uncovered evidence that even the people that worked for entertainment companies combatting piracy were downloading pirated content. Gawker's Ryan Tate blogged about it:
Using a new BitTorrent monitoring service, the website TorrentFreak discovered people at Sony Pictures Entertainment IP addresses downloading "Beavis and Butthead," "Conan the Barbarian" and rock duo the Black Keys, none produced by Sony. Over at NBC Universal, the download action included "Game of Thrones," "2 Broke Girls," and "How To Make It in America," none made by NBC or Universal. (We'll forgive the media conglomerate its "Cowboys and Aliens" download, since it helps distribute the film, but producers Fairview and Imagine Entertainment may still have a legitimate grievance). Fox, meanwhile, was all over Paramount's "Super "8. That would be the same Fox that had a guy sent to jail for uploading "Wolverine."
This torrent traffic were pulled from only a small sample of the total so, as TorrentFreaks notes, is only the tip of the iceberg. … Aren't oligopolies great?
Then there's the whole matter of former Senator Chris Dodd, who's currently the entertainment industry's most high-profile lobbyist as the head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). He's been struggling to defend SOPA against its critics who say the bill will usher in an unprecedented era of censorship in the United States. Dodd sort of sounds like a despot when he argues that SOPA will catch criminals, not censor the Internet.
Looping back to the Will.i.am-Universal-MegaUpload controversy, it's easy to see how quickly and easily something can be wrongfully censored on a site like YouTube. Given even more power under the provisions of SOPA, the United States government could actually block YouTube altogether for hosting allegedly pirated content. We'd put extra emphasis on "allegedly," since SOPA allows for a quick and seamless process from a Hollywood rights-owner filing a complaint to the site being blocked; it takes an allegation, not solid proof. It turns out that Hollywood's allegations are sometimes wrong, and while we'll wait for a judge to decide the fate of MegaUpload's case against Universal as well as those movie-downloading movie industry employees, it's up to Congress this week to decide the fate of the First Amendment.