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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Are You An Internet Entrepreneur In Colorado? Oppose PIPA!

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If you are a entrepreneur in Colorado who is working on something related to the Internet, please consider signing the following letter to Senator Udall and Senator Bennet opposing the Protect IP (PIPA) Act. I’ve written why I believe PIPA is effectively censorship and an incredibly dangerous and destructive bill to our economy, entrepreneurship, the Internet, and free speech.

After several discussions with various Congressional staff members, I’ve drafted the following letter to deliver to Senator Udall and Senator Bennet. I want to make sure they are hearing directly from entrepreneurs in Colorado, who I view as a much more important constituency of theirs than the folks in Hollywood who are trying to jam these bills through Congress. I’ve tried to make this letter substantive around the issues so the Senators understand the fundamental issues with the bills.

If you are a Colorado entrepreneur and want to be signed on to this letter, please either email me or put your name, company name, and title in the comments. The letter follows:

To: Senator Udall, Senator Bennet

As entrepreneurs in Colorado, we are writing because the Protect IP Act, now moving through the Senate (along with its House counterpart), poses a significant risk to the innovation, entrepreneurship, and job creation that has characterized the Internet’s development.  We urge you to take a critical view of this legislation, calling for a greater effort to balance its focus on addressing piracy with its unintended consequence on technological development and innovation.  In short, we do not dispute that piracy on the Internet is a valid and important policy concern worth addressing; we do, however, object to the approach taken in this proposed legislation, which does not take seriously the interests of and impact on Internet companies.

Over the last twenty years, the Internet has enabled entrepreneurial upstarts to establish new companies, creating enormous amounts of wealth, jobs of the future here in the United States, and improving the lives of consumers and the productivity of businesses.  This success story rests on an architecture—both technical and legal—that has allowed for innovation without permission.   Most notably, sound regulatory and legal policy creates an environment where Internet companies can grow without the need to navigate difficult legal requirements, face entry barriers, or be at the mercy of larger companies’ business decisions.   Without such an environment, Google, Facebook, and other successful Internet companies would not exist, or would not have been founded here in the US.

In the area of intellectual property, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) constitutes a sound model of an Internet policy regime that allows for innovation and Internet-based entrepreneurship.  Under the DMCA, Internet companies are not required to architect their offerings in any particular manner to prevent possible copyright infringement; rather, they enjoy a “safe harbor” from secondary liability provided they comply with a “notice-and-takedown” provision that operates after-the-fact.  The DMCA also requires Internet companies to develop and enforce “repeat infringer” policies to address those individuals who do not respect copyright.
The Protect IP Act (PIPA) reflects the concern that the DMCA has allowed for significant amounts of piracy to take place on the Internet and that more can and should be done to prevent it.  But this concern alone cannot justify support for PIPA, as the proposed legislation takes four critical steps that, taken together, risk undermining the Internet’s architecture for innovation.

The most crucial and fateful flaw in the proposed legislation is its stance that not only the Department of Justice, but also private firms, should be able to sue Internet companies to invoke the remedies available in the bill.  In so doing, and in combination with its conclusion that certain remedies should be available on an ex parte basis—without the essential due process safeguards of offering the affected party notice and an opportunity to be heard–it subjects companies to the potential risk that they will be subject to extreme measures in error.

Three other aspects of the law bear notice and significant concern.  First, the bill imposes no accountability on private firms that invoke PIPA’s provisions in bad faith or even recklesslessly, despite evidence that firms have issued notice and take down requests in the DMCA in this manner (and despite the presence of such a provision in the DMCA).  Second, the bill sets out a standard that potentially subjects Internet providers to liability without clear, specific limits that can be readily be understood and followed ahead of time.  Third, the bill goes beyond the very sensible and effective remedy of preventing the use of credit card payments, ad networks, and other sources of funds to “rogue websites” and includes provisions that not only authorizes the seizure of domain names (which the DOJ can do under current law), but also the blocking of the Domain Name System address by ISPs.

The economic impact of the Internet and growth of Internet companies, here in Colorado and across the United States, is powerful success story that reflects the ingenuity, entrepreneurial spirit, and wise policy environment that the United States enjoys.  The innovators of tomorrow are ill-equipped to hire lobbyists and thus it is crucial that enlightened political leaders, like you both, take the time, effort, and care to engage with the technology community to ensure that an environment that supports innovation remain in place.  A sound regime for both protecting intellectual property rights and protecting companies against undue liability and legal traps for the unwary is part of that environment.

PIPA does not accomplish this and we strongly encourage you to take the concerns of the Colorado entrepreneurial community seriously, lest you overreach unnecessarily to protect intellectual property rights and undermine Internet-based innovation as a result.

American Censorship Day Is Tomorrow (11/16/11)

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There are two very disturbing bills making their way through Congress: Protect IP Act (PIPA - S.968) and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA – H.R.3261). These bills are coated in rhetoric that I find disgusting since at their core they are online censorship bills. It’s incredible to me that Congress would take seriously anything that censors the Internet and the American public but in the last few weeks PIPA and SOPA have burst forth with incredibly momentum, largely being underwritten by large media companies and their lobbyists.

A number of organizations in support of free speech and a free and open Internet have recently come out in opposition to these bills. They include EFF, Free Software Foundation, Public Knowledge, Demand Progress, Fight For the Future, Participatory Politics Foundation, and Creative Commons who have organized American Censorship Day tomorrow (11/16/11).

If you run a website or have a blog, go to the American Censorship site to see how you can participate on 11/16/11.

In addition to being censorship bills, these are anti-entrepreneurship bills. They are a classic example of industry incumbents trying to use the law to stifle disruptive innovation, or at least innovation that they view as disruptive to their established business. To date, the Internet has been an incredible force for entrepreneurship and positive change throughout the world (did anyone notice what recently happened in Egypt?) It’s beyond comprehension why some people in Congress would want to slow this down in any way.

While you can try to understand the bills, this short video does a phenomenal job of summarizing their potential impact along with second order effects (intended or unintended).

PROTECT IP Act Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

I’m furious about this, as are many of my friends, including Fred Wilson who wrote today about how these bills undermine The Architecture of the Internet. But we are aware, as are many others, that simply being mad doesn’t solve anything. Join us and speak out loudly against censorship – right now! If you have a blog or website, please take part in American Censorship Day - the instructions are on their website which – so far – hasn’t been censored.

Protect The Internet

Comments (270)

Recently, two bills have been introduced into Congress that – if passed – will do irreparable damage to the Internet, entrepreneurship, free speech, and job creation as a result of the continued entrepreneurial activity around the Internet.

Fred Wilson has a strong post up titled Protecting The Safe Harbors Of The DMCA And Protecting Jobs that explains the situation. Go read the post now – it’s an outstanding summary in plain English of what is going on.

If you don’t want to read the bills, watch the following four minute video for another excellent summary of what they are about, especially how the bills will be used by existing large companies.

The bills – like many in Congress – are misleadingly named. The House bill is called the E-PARASITES Act. The Senate bill is called the Protect IP Act. If you have the emotional fortitude and patience, go read them – they will scare the crap out of you, if you can understand them (I had to print them out, read them slowly, and annotate them to understand what they actually said.) I’d encourage Congress to rename both of these bills the “Destroy the Internet, Corresponding Jobs Created by Entrepreneurship Around The Internet, and Restrict Freedom of Speech” Act.

I’m not being dramatic – these are horrifyingly bad bills being introduced at a time when our country should be focused on exactly the opposite of what these bills represent.

Speak out now about this – loudly – to your representatives in Congress. While I recognize the lobbyists behind these bills – and the companies behind the lobbyist – are pouring in tons of money to try to get these bills past, hopefully our representatives are strong thinkers who can’t simply be bought.

The Internet has been an unbelievable force for innovation, entrepreneurship, job creation, and free speech in the US, and around the world. The US had been a leader here – let’s continue to be a leader.

The Predictable Flood of Politics Oriented Web Startups

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I received at least one email a day last week pitching a politics oriented web startup. The emails start off something like this.

Over $8 billion dollars will be spent on the upcoming 2012 election. The web and social media are critical tools for any candidate. Every candidate will need our stuff and since over $8 billion dollars will be spent, even if we capture a tiny part of that market, we will create a huge company. Did I say that over $8 billion dollars will be spent? Would you like to hear more about the amazing opportunity we have in front of us?

The polite version of my answer has been “Thanks for reaching out but we aren’t interested in investing in the politics vertical market.” But, echoing in the back of my head is “$8 billion dollars? You’ve got to fucking be kidding me.”

I could go on about a rant about spending $8 billion to elect people in one election. But I realize there are lots of different ways to look at this, including the common refrains of “it’s a stimulus for our economy” and “but it’s entertainment, just like football.” And I have no doubt that there are people out there whose immediate response is “but don’t you think your ad-tech related companies make a lot of money off of this?” And as I cycle through the next ten thoughts in my head, I realize that my personal thoughts about this will have no impact on what actually happens.

So instead I just vote with my own wallet and get on board the Howard Schultz Boycott Campaign Donations train. And while I have no doubt that some people can make money creating web services for helping candidates get elected, especially those that include mobile, real-time data, and geo-location, I have no real interest in investing in companies that have the singular goal of helping politicians get elected.

How Federal Government Can Help Entrepreneurship

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This afternoon in Boulder I’ll be on a panel as part of the White House Startup America Roundtable. If you weren’t invited to the event, there is a web site called Reducing Barriers to Innovation that you can participate in.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent some time thinking about how the government can help entrepreneurship. It started with my role as the co-chairman of the Colorado Governors Innovation Council which was my first involvement in any formal way with any government initiative. More recently, I’ve focused my energy on the Startup Visa movement and the Startup America Partnership.

When I was reviewing the agenda for the Reducing Barriers to Innovation program, the goal of the program was pretty clear:

“The Startup America: Reducing Barriers event is a regional platform that allows federal agencies to hear directly, from entrepreneurs and local leaders like you, how we can achieve our goal of reducing the barriers faced by America’s entrepreneurs. Senior Obama administration officials need input on what changes are needed to build a more supportive environment for entrepreneurship. “

On my run yesterday, I mulled over the big activities that I thought the federal government could do to “build a more supportive environment for entrepreneurship.” I came up with five things that I think are relatively easy to measure over the long run. Following are short thoughts on each of these areas with one specific idea (in italics) that I think would materially impact entrepreneurship in America in a positive way.

Tax Policy: Incent people to invest in startups. While there are several well understood tax policies that could be implemented, the simplest is to provide long term tax breaks for individuals to invest in new startup companies. As with anything tax related, there are endless politics involved and many of the things that actual get rolled out are so obscure that they either never get implemented or are to difficult for investors to understand. Make it simple – eliminate capital gains if an individual (who is an accredited investor) invests equity (i.e. risk of 100% loss of investment) in a private company with less than 100 employees.

Immigration Policy: Make it easy for foreigner entrepreneurs to come to the US, or for foreign students to stay in the US, and start companies. This is the essence of what we’ve been trying to solve with the Startup Visa movement. The new Startup Visa Act of 2011 has plenty of improvements over the 2010 Act (which was introduced but never went anywhere) but still is stuck in Congress. If the White House wants to make a difference here, it should prioritize the Startup Visa separately from “broad immigration reform” and help get it passed since the Startup Visa is much less about immigration and much more about entrepreneurship, innovation, and jobs.

Regulatory Policy: Cut as much paperwork and bureaucracy out of the system. While this one is talked about regularly by the people in government that I know, the regulatory environment just seems to get more and more complicated. The solution so far has seemed to be “hire more people to process more paper faster.” This clearly hasn’t worked – how about taking the opposite approach and cut 20% of all jobs within various government agencies responsible for regulatory activity? I don’t care if you pay the fired people for two years – give them healthy severances and incentives to go work in the private sector. Necessity will drive efficiency.

Investment: Focus investment in university research. Then open source the results. The federal government has been a historically successful investor in innovation and the creation of new technologies, often through funding university research. If you want a good example of this, read Bright Boys. Unfortunately, this has gotten really messed up recently due to our byzantine patent system and the evolving dynamics of university technology licensing organizations. The government should allocate even more money to university research programs, but the results of this research should not be able to be patented and should be free for anyone to license. This would drastically change the technology licensing game by simplifying it and shifting economic incentives aggressively to companies that actually commercialize (or productize) this research, rather than simply claim ownership to the “intellectual property.”

Customer: The federal government is an enormous consumer of products and services. While it claims to want to do business with entrepreneurial companies and so far pays its bills in a predictable manner, it’s a miserable customer to deal with. The procurement process is painful, many entrepreneurial companies have to work through government contractor gatekeepers (who take up to a 30% tax for doing nothing other than being the contracting party), and often the execution and implementation process is a disaster. Unfortunately, I don’t really have a suggestion for how to improve this since there are so many rules and regulations around this – I guess the answer is “see regulatory policy” above.

I’m continuing to think through this and refine my thoughts on it, so as always I’m open to any and all feedback, including “Feld – you are such a knucklehead – that’s a stupid idea and will never work, but try this.” Fire away.

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