Views from Ohanian, Sahakian on Congressional Bills Addressing Digital Piracy

Elise Kalfayan

BY ELISE KALFAYAN

“SOPA/PIPA” have been major topics online, but I didn’t read up on them until a message appeared on my blog’s upload screen last week from the project leaders of WordPress. The nonpolitical lead programmers of open source software which runs millions of websites including mine were encouraging their entire WordPress community to contact Congress and urge defeat of the proposed bills.

A quick Google search on the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act sent me to a video link of Alexis Ohanian’s January 5 interview on Bloomberg TV.

Ohanian, the young founder of Reddit.com  (which gets millions of visits each month), stated his conviction that “More government intervention is not the answer here.” He noted later that Bloomberg was the first mainstream outlet to cover the controversy, which had been brewing on the internet for weeks. TechCrunchTV  and finally CNN  interviewed Ohanian just this week as a January 18 internet blackout loomed.

Ohanian and Reddit instigated the blackout in protest against the bills before Congress. Wikipedia, Google, Craigslist, and many other major sites joined in or put a warning on their front page about the bills.

Media conglomerates (Craigslist named News Corp, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America, Nike, Sony, Comcast, VISA “and others” on its home page) lobbied for these bills, which would give copyright holders the power to ask the US Department of Justice to block websites accused of infringement. The entertainment industry and creative professionals have suffered greatly from pirating: the illegal copying and distribution of films, videos, music, and creative content. But the remedy proposed through $94 million in lobbying (according to Ohanian) alarms the internet business community concerned about censorship, and its determined opposition has been “organic, not top-down.”

Shant Sahakian, also a young Armenian-American internet entrepreneur, deals with the both sides of this debate in his business.

Sahakian is founder and president of the full-service marketing and design firm Sedna Solutions, started in 1999 and based in Glendale. He helps clients build websites, social apps, and marketing and print advertising campaigns. He’s worked extensively with creative professionals, and his clients include Glendale Arts and the Alex Theatre.

“One of the problems with the legislation is that there is a fine line between enforcement and going too far,” he said. “The drafters have good intentions, but it is too broadly written. They might do a good job of enforcing it and not abusing its power, but who knows five years from now? Especially with how fast the internet is changing, it brings up risks for censorship and threats to freedom of speech.”

What about the concerns of content creators, who are losing income as people just steal their work off the internet? “It’s definitely a major issue,” says Sahakian. “You see it all the time with something simple like stock photography. There are very clear laws, you need to purchase photos, and you need to give the photographer credit if that’s part of the agreement. They created the photos so they have the rights to their work. There is quite a bit of abuse, taking the work of musicians, artists, and photographers, and I think that something needs to be done, but the way SOPA and PIPA have been written is overreaching.”

Sahakian’s work with clients includes “a great deal of education about copyright.” He directs them to resources where they can obtain creative works such as photographs with clear terms and conditions that are respectful of the artists’ rights. “We’ve had some issues ourselves, when some of the ads we’ve done for clients are ‘copied’ in some form – that’s always an interesting topic.”

Sahakian says there are already laws on the books to deal with copyright problems that could have a remedy (foreign websites posing the greatest threat to Hollywood by pirating movies are outside U.S. jurisdiction). “With websites for example, if there’s a problem, you can contact the hosting company’s abuse department, and they can decide if they have legal grounds to remove the content or if there’s a risk. YouTube, for example: if there’s a video where there’s been some copyright infringement, has a process by which they decide whether to take it down. Some companies are responsible, some aren’t responsible at all, and maybe some laws need be on the books that make websites responsible for things on their site. But the way the law is written it gives Congress and the Department of Justice a lot of power. The big danger is Congress picking favorites, as people have said they’ve done in the auto industry or the banking industry. It opens up a risk of too much power being given to one side.”

Ohanian, Sahakian, and other internet entrepreneurs have all said the solution to this problem needs to be crafted very carefully. Ohanian calls for significant input from the “tech community.” Sahakian says, “You’ll have to bring creative people, small businesses, and internet experts together to figure out how to protect copyrights and protect work from getting copied.”

A January 18 Congressional committee hearing on the House bill’s provisions, called by Darrell Issa (R-CA), was cancelled after constituent outcry got the House bill tabled. Issa had invited Ohanian, among others, to testify.

The January 24 Senate vote on its version of the legislation may still go forward so the fight is not over, said Ohanian on CNN. Both California senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer are listed as sponsors of the bill. Original co-sponsor Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) announced January 18 that he no longer supported the PIPA bill and would ask Harry Reid to withdraw it.

This column’s focus on the federal legislative fight pitting Hollywood against Silicon Valley ends here: Asbarez readers can follow the news online in the coming days.

I’m glad research on the subject led me to learn more about Alexis Ohanian and his successful startup Reddit, which I will start checking regularly (it’s a fun site!). Also impressive is his volunteer work to encourage entrepreneurs and startups in many ways, including the time he spent as a 2010 Kiva Fellow in Armenia.

I’m also glad I learned more about Shant Sahakian and his work in our community. In addition to creating top-quality online platforms for Glendale Arts and other notable clients through Sedna Solutions, he is serving on the boards of the Downtown Glendale Merchants Association, the Glendale Parks & Open Space Foundation, and the Glendale Young Professionals, and is a very thoughtful business professional himself.

Finally, I’m grateful national attention is being paid to the huge problem all content creators (including writers like me!) are having with copyright infringement and digital piracy. There should be a way to guarantee the full fruits of our labors that doesn’t threaten freedom of expression.
Elise Kalfayan is a Glendale resident, a native Southern Californian, and a combined first/second generation Armenian-American. She has produced or edited print and online pieces on topics ranging from urban development to Armenian Church history. She is the publisher of a Glendale community news blog, and works as a contract writer, editor, and publishing consultant for clients including businesses, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and memoirists.

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