Online Volunteer Recruitment, SOPA and Copyright

What do you think about SOPA and PIPA?Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart;
the centre cannot hold…
– WB Yeats

As you may have heard, today some of the nation’s leading websites have gone dark or are publishing special opinion pieces about online piracy and internet freedom.

These activities are in reaction to proposed Congressional legislation called SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act, and its Senate companion PIPA (Protect IP Act).

VolunteerMatch.org will not be joining them. Our mission is to strengthen communities by making it easier for good people and good causes to connect, and we can’t do that if we’re not open for business. However, taking my cue from Ars Technica, I see a teachable moment. And as members of our team know, I’m constitutionally unable to let a teachable moment pass by!

So I wanted to take a few moments to let our users know how VolunteerMatch uses copyright to deliver on the promise of our mission – and how it impacts our volunteers, nonprofits and network partners.

SOPA Pro’s and Cons

If SOPA and PIPA become law, they promise to give federal authorities a bag of very powerful tools to go after publishers who are accused of copyright theft. Sites can more easily be shut down, infringers can more easily be prosecuted, and the U.S. Department of Justice can more easily cut off sources of funding from sites that are suspected of enabling even a modest amount of copyright theft.

While the proposed laws has strong support from organizations the represent content creators like music publishers and filmmakers, SOPA and PIPA are also supported by companies behind some of the best-known brands today, including products that you are probably using right now.

Supporters of SOPA and PIPA are rightfully concerned that their ability to protect their copyrighted assets has not kept up with the growing use of the Internet to consume and share content. They see new technology springing up every day that makes it easier to share materials, easier to make money illicitly from that sharing, and harder for anyone to track or make sense of it. They are scared.

Opponents of the legislation see an existential threat both to the Internet and in some cases their own businesses. These are for the most part activists, free speech advocates and content creators who believe in the promise of an open, civic-oriented Web that is a continuation of the values and identity of the Web’s early days – a time when people, not companies, worked together to make the Internet useful.

They’ve seen proposals to tighten restrictions on web content and sharing before, but they are worried that each new proposal seems to be more restrictive than the one before. They see in SOPA and PIPA the return of a pendulum swing that they believe will end the Web as they know it.

They are also scared.

VolunteerMatch & Copyright

Copyright is important to us, too.

Our members share their words, images, and even personal information. We need to be able to display that content in the right place. We also need protection from prosecution in the rare instance that a member uploads something that they don’t have permission to share.

In our blogs and newsletters, our team members develop articles that we hope will be read as widely read as possible. But we need to be vigilant against others putting their own names on it or charging money for it.

We also have network partners who support our work by paying license fees for the right to display VolunteerMatch content to their own communities. It’s a business model that depends on VolunteerMatch having the sole right to decide who gets to display this content.

What makes all this hard, of course, is that it’s easy for bad guys to copy this information and share it without us knowing about it. We only have so many tools and so many hours at our disposal, and in this regard we are just like any other publisher on the web.

Yet if we build a wall that’s too high around our fortress, we will fail in our mission. The same principles that make it easy for people to find us also make it easy for people to harm us.

Perhaps the metaphor should be less a pendulum and more a knife’s edge. The line is a fine one, and if we go too far over the side it’s a very steep fall.

A Center Which Cannot Hold

For businesses that depend on the control and use of technology, these are trying times. It’s hard to keep up on new trends and tools, it’s expensive to produce content that everyone will want to use, and it’s impossible to control how people will share things.

But these are trying times for those who helped create and popularize the Web, too. Big interests and big money have long since moved in. In fact, we’re all here now. The Web has become like real life — a community of interests.

And so we’re all in it together. And the one thing we all share is a desire to see the Web continue to be about what communications has always been about: finding people and telling stories.

Yeats wrote his famous lines after World War I, in part as a reaction to the fierce contribution of technology to the bloodshed in Europe. Today the poem still resonates as a reminder of the potential of technology to evolve well beyond the original intent of its creators – both for good and bad.

The continued uproar surrounding SOPA and PIPA tells me that they’re not the right solution for right now. They won’t truly be able to protect copyright while helping maintain openness. But the fact is that the pendulum is still swinging. And the search for a delicate balance needs to continue.

What do you think about SOPA and PIPA? Share your thoughts with us.

This article also appears on Volunteering is CSR.

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