Steve Klingaman

Steve Klingaman
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
January 01
Steve Klingaman is a nonprofit development consultant and nonfiction writer specializing in personal finance and public policy. His music reviews can be found at

Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 18, 2012 11:45AM

Online Piracy’s Cure is Worse Than the Curse

Rate: 8 Flag



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.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
Steve, this is one of the better analyses I have read. Rational and dispassionate - thank you for not giving in to "the sky is falling" rhetoric.

A series of strange (and unknown until relatively recently) events have led to a musical work, penned and performed by my husband and I, to have ended up all over the internet in the form of YouTube videos and quite a few music download sites. While I would like to get some money from this, these bills seem to go a little overboard, and the cons definitely outweigh the pros in my opinion. (Of course, I don't make my living from work which can digitally "shared" to infinity, so maybe this is a case easy for me to say.)
That was a very nice and informative article. This is a complex issue, but as you alluded, the bill is a disaster in the making. If I have the time, I may add my views on this topic later.
I was talking to a friend today who said that this law goes (SOPA and PIPA) goes beyond protecting content; it protects copyright/ branding. So, if you are using a "brand" - in a link etc - and say/do something that disparages it and decreases its value, you would be subject to being shut down. His example was my vegan essay - I mention (by name) brands where I take issue with the way they are made or marketed (Nestle/ Novartis). One interpretation is that my blog, and OS by extension, could be shut down if those companies chose to pursue me for linking to them in a damaging fashion. Another example he gave is that news footage - ie Fox pundits saying ridiculous things - would be copyrighted and other networks or analysts couldn't use them. Have you heard any of these concerns?
Laura, trademark abuse would likely be covered under the intellectual property clause of the bills. Trademark abuse or appropriation would be the issue here. Or if you used any company content in your own post. Otherwise its really more a libel issue from the company's point of view. But if, for example, a number of bloggers used photos in their blogs that came from, say, the New York Times, under the proposed bill, yes, action could be taken against OS for copyright abuse, at least theoretical. Of course action could be taken now, but the bills allow for search engine banishment and for the site to be cut off from its revenue streams, which in the case case of OS...oh never mind!
I agree it is a huge and not easily solvable problem. How does one allow content creators to make a living while protecting the Internet from the Big Media bullies. I wish I knew the answer to that one.
This is a very complex issue with too many ramifications. I am still trying to understand it. Thank you for your piece.
Thanks - As the USA leads on these matters, I hope a good solution can be found - I fret that in some countries where the roots of the free speech culture are still tenuous there exists a clear danger (in Italy there have been some attempts at "regulating" the web by Berlusconi's past government, the ensuing uproar has so far shelved the matter)
I think your point that freedom of speech is in jeopardy in the attempt to regulate piracy is exactly right. We should move towards anti piracy rules and regulations in a more measured way. SOPA intends to treat the issue with a broad brush that will affect many fair use applications of intellectual property. The unintended consequences of this bill may not be as drastic as we fear, but even a tame interpretation of the bill could lead to repercussions that none of us want.
Anecdotally, I bought more music in the two weeks that I used Napster than in the 5 years before or after. In my case, it was a huge incentive for me to buy music legitimately. I know that the true pirates don't act that way, but I think that the laws enacted to prevent piracy pushed people like me out of the market. I didn't start pirating music, I just stopped listening because of my disillusion. I'm concerned that SOPA will have a similar effect.
Balanced and nuanced approach here Steve. I agree that the bill is too restrictive but I sympathize with the many creators and their support industries who lose out on piracy. I have to admit that I sometimes feel a twinge of guilt at the vast amounts of free content I get (though i haven't downloaded anything for several years).

Perhaps there needs to be a deal along these lines. Make the ISPs charge a "Creators' Fee" of a few bucks a year for everyone with web access. That money goes into a fund to be distributed by some negotiated agreement to the various organizations representing the creators and their professional support groups. It's a bit messy and unfair to those who never download but I don't see a neater solution.
Wrote about this the other day too. Totally agree. And people need to be paying more attention to this. It's not just about fighting onlinepiracy and protecting intellectual property (all necessary), it's also about defending our rights to "Fair Use" and expression, and keeping the Internet free. Let's not be naive, a lot of this is also the attempts by big corporations to suppress user-generated content and control once again the means of media distribution.
♥β•‘β•šβ•β•β• β•—β•”β•—β•”β•£β•šβ•β•β•£β•šβ•β•β•—β”€β•‘β•‘
♥β•šβ•β•β•β•β•šβ•β•šβ•β•šβ•β•β•β•©β•β•β•β•β”€β•š for letting us know what is happening online to our creative content and more..
My son occasionally watches pirated movies. There is an assumption that if he hadn't downloaded a movie, he would have obtained it in a manner that contributes to the entertainment industry's revenues.

But the vast majority of those who view pirated films wouldn't do so if they had to pay for them. They will watch pirated films for free, or not at all.

Because of this, the notion that preventing online piracy will substantially increase revenues is nonsense.
Mark, your comment is well taken; I made essentially the same point in my post. And truth be told, at least some of the pirated movies that are currently screened would be paid for if the user is inclined to ever pay for any content--many teens, for example, are not. But the missing corollary is that if movies become commonly available for free download no one will ever pay to see them at home and that will decimate industry profits in the same way it did with the music industry. So the argument doesn't justify illegal downloading.
My son tells me that this is one issue that crosses rhetorical and political lines....everyone in the college town where he lives is opposed to this.

What's happening here is that we are being hoisted on our own petard. Having embraced electronic media we are left with an ephemeral product far more easily stolen than a physical product.

It is one hell of a lot harder to pirate vinyl records than it is to pirate digital music. It's much harder to pirate printed books than it is to pirate electronic documents.

The cost efficiency and ease of production that electronic media afford is the precise reason that electronic media is being pirated.

The idea that those who transmit pirated material should be shut down is ludicrous....unless you want to shut down Fedex for transporting pirated products.

Fedex, as a common carrier, is not responsible for policing the shippers who use their services. The internet is the electronic equivalent of Fedex, with the aggregaters are analogous to Fedex aircraft and individual web site owners are analogous to the Fedex delivery people.

We don't hold newspaper delivery boys (and girls) if there are such people any more accountable for the content of the publications they deliver.

By this logic, we should shut down the US Postal Service for delivering pirated products...which they do every day.

The ludicrousness of these examples point by analogy to the central core underlying this issue: those who are promoting this legislation don't care even a little bit about piracy because they know that piracy will continue unabated, as it has since time began.

If neither Kublai Kan nor Theodore Roosevelt could eradicate piracy - and both tried - we can't either.

The underlying motivation has nothing to do with mercantile activity. That's the excuse.

The real objective is to squelch the squeals of the disenfranchised - the 99% - in the hopes of staving off the development here of the same kinds of revolutionary movements that are popping up all over the world.

This is indeed the nose of the camel in the tent. The fact that there is really no way to effectively enforce this law - which will fail a constitutional challenge under the free speech clause - is offset by the fact that there are no schemes that can reliably protect electronic media.

The only solution is to go back to paper, vinyl, and acetate film, three things I wouldn't mind at all.

Speaking, now, as a poet, precisely what kind of living are we trying to protect? I've been a working poet for more than 45 years and have yet to make a dime at it.
Wikipedia rich? That's a new one.

Sage, I agree with you but find a problem with the FedEx example in that they don't know what is in the box they are shipping.

And yes, sadly, poets have little fear in terms of income loss.
baltimore seems to have taken on the role of OS's new resident contrarian, which is fine. But I would ask him/her to please differentiate between the intent of the law (which he/she claims Wikipedia has misstated, a claim that I'm not so sure about) and the actual effect of the law. I don't think most people have a problem with the intent of the law, which is to protect people who create content. The question is, though, is this the law that's going to accomplish that, along with keeping the internet free (not "free" in the monetary sense) and open?

We also need to keep in mind that this law was produced and debated on by a group of people who most likely know very little about how the internet actually works, as evidenced by the late Senator Ted Stevens, who stated that the internet is a series of tubes.
Jeanette, Jon Stewart did a piece last night showing clips of the leading House members assigned to the committee assigned to vet this bill. It was hilarious, and it's safe to say that those at the House know absolutely nothing about the Internet or intellectual content, which, of course, is mondo frightening. Catch it on YouTube. You won't believe your ears.
Excellent article, Steve. It's always a puzzle to see products that are in such high demand where the producers are unable to earn a profit from them because the technology doesn't allow it, or a new business model hasn't been found to capture it. I know a lot of reporters from prominent papers who are in other professions because the industry don't really have a good way to charge for their product, no matter how valued it is. And here we are giving it all away -- and loving it!
Oh oh, my irony meter just went off big time.

I think you may be interested in this article, which is relevant to this discussion:

Why Should We Stop Online Piracy? A little copyright infringement is good for the economy and society.
I agree with Bill Mahr when he says that people will steal because they can. There is something to be said for having to pay for what you use.

Regardless of the 'Infringement on Free Speech' argument, stealing is stealing. It is especially the little guy that suffers from piracy. The big guys can afford to have some of their products pirated.