Wikipedia’s White-Out is probably one of the most effective PR moves we have witnessed in a long time. It’s Hollywood versus Silicon Valley writ large, with a side order of Homeland Security and First Amendment concerns. Intellectual property has had a rough ride on the Web for more than a decade. So now, SOPA and PIPA have appeared in the ham-fisted hand of Congress to “fix” the problem of online piracy.
It’s bad law, bad for the free access to information while the rights of content providers may or may not be protected by the proposed legislation. My guess is they wouldn’t. The law represents a Chinese filter approach. If a website posts copyrighted content without authorization, and, presumably, payment, the site is shut down effectively by being stripped from search engine and other access.
What gets lost in this dispute is that content providers represent a huge and growing job sector in the U.S. As a veteran of the music industry I haven’t forgotten the billions of dollars in commercial value that was wiped out since the advent of music piracy. Most musicians were afraid to speak out during the sector’s meltdown for fear of alienating their fan base. Illegal downloaders targeting what they perceived to be monolithic, greedy music corporations—forgetting that musicians, songwriters, engineers, technology manufacturers, agents, PR people—scores of good job categories were decimated in the process. Ironically, by the time illegal downloading gained traction, perhaps 40 percent of all recorded music was originating on independent or boutique labels run by people who were most definitely part of the 99 percent. Those people got hurt bad. Much of the money in music used to be in publishing revenue. Publishing revenue goes ultimately to writers. Piracy decimated that revenue stream as well as what are called mechanical rights from CD and digital sales and changed the industry for the worse forever. Now, it’s tour or die.
Today, it’s déjà vu all over again only this time Hollywood is in the crosshairs of a movement that perceives it to be a monolithic, greedy, corporate sector. Well, it is and it isn’t. The largest conglomerates like SONY and Fox are certainly players here. Movies are very expensive to make as compared to records. That breeds consolidation and a fairly hard core commercial market at the top of the pyramid. Actress Tilda Swinton calls that sector the industrial movie scene. But beneath that level, the film business encompasses a huge component of content providers, and if these people can’t pay their investors back due to pirated films, then their entire business model dies and the promise of jobs and a future for America as content provider to the world goes belly up. This is no small threat. It would be a tragedy.
The proponents of SOPA and DOPA or whatever argue that every pirated film represents a lost sale. That is clearly nonsense. Most shoplifters wouldn’t buy the object of their affection if offered the chance. But the dollar amounts at risk are still staggering in view of how hard it is for creatives to make a living any other way.
So maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board to attempt find a solution that does not throw the baby (free speech) out with the bath water (pirated files). I don’t profess to know what that solution is. I would hope that it can rest in technologically based protections that represent improvements over most known copy protection schemes by several orders of magnitude. That, and sensible enforcement that does not threaten the interests of content aggregators up to and including Wikipedia. Some in the electronic rights movement see these bills as nose-under-the-tent propositions that portend Internet censorship to come. Given the recent example of Chinese Web censorship and our homegrown Homeland Security mania, that’s a fear based at least partially in reality. That is reason enough to move more carefully on the legislative front.
You might think that given Hollywood’s sway with the Democrats this would be a partisan issue, but it doesn’t exactly cut that way. Where else could you find an issue about which Minnesota congresspeople Keith Ellison (one of the most liberal members of the House) and Michele Bachmann agree? Both oppose the bill.
So the bills suck maybe, but not taking the problem seriously is dangerous to the economic prospects of people I care a great deal about. I like driving around L.A. at the street level and interacting with people who are part of its company town identity. Filmmakers, set designers, trainers, tech people, actors, composers—so many of the people who followed their hearts against great odds depend on a cash flow that is at huge risk right now.
How pervasive can piracy become? In music all online content is pirated worldwide. I know this because I have a couple of releases that have an online presence. I can guarantee you my economic footprint with online digital sales is infinitesimally small. Yet files of my songs can be found, for sale, and for free, on pirate sites worldwide. What I am saying is that the abuse filters down to every indie nook and cranny of the business—and this is what film and book publishing have to look forward to. When I see a Kindle, I see future piracy on a huge scale. I see broke writers in the future.
So what can be done? Some creative problem solving, I hope, beyond ROPA DOPA and similar efforts, but effective nonetheless. I see no reason why the defense of free speech and access has to bring the creative class to its knees.