Guest column

Indie artists, military groups share a cause

By DAVID NEWHOFF | | Published: December 2, 2011

It isn’t often that the needs of independent artists are aligned with those of men and women in the military; but, as someone who is directly concerned with both, I urge my colleagues in the creative community as well as military personnel and veterans’ organizations to support the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation in the House, and the PROTECT IP and Combating Counterfeits Acts currently being debated in the Senate.

These bills seek to crack down on offshore websites that are marketing and selling pirated and counterfeit products of all kinds to American consumers.

I am an independent filmmaker and very much concerned with making a living from my work as I rebuild a theatrical film career after years working in the field of corporate communications. My first project, released this October, is a 30-minute short film called “gone Elvis,” which is a fictional portrayal of a homeless, female veteran of the Iraq War. Not only did I make the film for myself, but I am also committed to its potential benefit to America’s veterans. This holiday season, for example, if we get enough online rentals, we’re donating some of the proceeds to veterans organizations — an effort that would be impossible if the film were pirated and illegally distributed for free.

I could not have made this movie without crowd-funding and social media, so I fully understand the power of the Internet to support innovation and independent entrepreneurialism — and I would not support these bills if they posed a threat in that regard. Additionally, because the subject matter of my film has led to a burgeoning advocacy for the needs of men and women in the military, I was very interested to discover that these bills include measures to prevent counterfeit products from entering the U.S. military supply chain. This type of counterfeiting primarily occurs when substandard products are labeled “military grade” and are then sold to legitimate contractors or directly to the Department of Defense.

These bills take direct aim at foreign-based, rogue sites and counterfeiters that trade in stolen American-made media and counterfeit products, including fake medicines, auto parts and military equipment. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a sponsor of the Combating Counterfeits Act, cited a 2008 Department of Commerce report stating “the high price of military grade products is going to attract more and more counterfeiters,” and, in fact, incidents are on the rise.

The hazards associated with counterfeits range from unreliable gear used by men and women in the field to junk microelectronics that make their way into aircraft, guidance and navigation systems, and the overall telecom networks of the national security infrastructure.

Clearly, intellectual-property legislation doesn’t solely protect the maker of things. It also protects the consumer. If that consumer is buying a knockoff Rolex in Chinatown, it’s one thing. But if that consumer is a combat soldier wearing Kevlar that isn’t really Kevlar, that’s obviously a more serious matter.

You may not see the connection between military counterfeits and online piracy, but it actually makes sense that Congress would take up these issues jointly, both with regard to writing the legislation itself and in determining the means of enforcement. There is a fundamental link between protecting intellectual property and guaranteeing the quality standards of a product. The House bill, SOPA, contains language that directly deals with military counterfeits, while the Senate is taking up the Combating Military Counterfeits Act concurrent with PROTECT IP.

After spending the last several weeks playing Whack-a-Mole with colleagues who continue to share blogs and articles that grossly misrepresent these bills as Big Brother legislation, I’m a little fed up with explaining why they’re not. It is particularly frustrating to see fellow independent artists and entrepreneurs casually pass along hyped-up headlines proclaiming the “end of the Internet” or the “end of free speech,” when this proposed legislation is specifically designed to protect our ability to make a living from our work. If one takes the time to look beyond the baseless, fear-mongering missives from the likes of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it is easy to learn that both PROTECT IP and SOPA are very clear, narrowly focused extensions of existing legislation that provide tools for shutting down foreign websites whose sole business is to profit from stolen, American-made products. A general mistrust of big media in this case is threatening the well-being of independent content creators for the sake of big tech, which benefits from trade in pirated content as much or more as it benefits from legal distribution channels.

Finally, my fellow artists and entrepreneurs should be encouraged by the combined attention on intellectual property and military counterfeits because the bills share an important similarity. Just as the anti-counterfeiting provisions do not penalize legitimate military contractors who inadvertently allow counterfeit components into their supply chains, the anti-piracy provisions do not penalize domestic websites that might inadvertently commit copyright infringements. Much of the fear-mongering to date is predicated on misrepresenting this very point. In both cases the proposed laws are designed to go after enterprise-scale, criminal operations; and anyone who doesn’t fit that description has nothing to fear. Members of the creative community as well as military-oriented organizations should support these bills.

David Newhoff is a writer and filmmaker living in New York.