The Take-home Message from the SOPA Debate

Tracking the political discourse regarding SOPA proved to be quite instructive in ways I hadn’t anticipated.  My own view on the proposed bill was that, while the aims weren’t entirely bad, some of the presumptions in the law overreached in ways with which I wasn’t comfortable.  For example, shifting the burden of policing to websites rather than the copyright holders and allowing those sites to be blocked in their entirety if they run afoul of SOPA is problematic.  Concerned about just how broad that might be applied, I opposed the new law on those grounds.

The wave of controversy over SOPA didn’t come as any shock.  What I found strange was that many of those standing against the bill did such an effective job of framing the narrative precisely to their collective liking, reality be damned.

If the anecdotal evidence I amassed from political and tech blogs (plus social network postings) is any indication at all, the evolving conventional wisdom about the bill held that SOPA was an assault on “free speech” advanced by large, powerful, agenda-driven corporations.  The opposition, by contrast, were egalitarian everymen who were trying to stop these corporations from stifling innovation and having even more control over the lives of the common people.

There was a very small kernel of truth in there somewhere.  There were undoubtedly large IP holders who saw SOPA as a way of protecting some of their most valuable commodities against further piracy by scaring file-sharing services of all kinds out of business.  However, what opponents seemed to miss was that this was in no way a battle between large corporate interests on one side and the common man on the other.  In fact, it was a battle between those who profit from IP (artists, rights-holders, the Hollywood lobby, etc) and those who benefit from loose IP restrictions (Facebook, Google, Yahoo, AOL, pirates, etc).

That’s one aspect of this that was so fascinating to me.  As I said, I opposed SOPA because it was essentially an internet “rulebook” as if entirely drawn up by the RIAA and similar groups.  This would be like allowing D-I football coaches and wealthy boosters to draft NCAA recruiting guidelines.  But the underlying goal is a good one: Protection of digital IP in an ever-changing internet landscape.

Somehow, though, those who opposed SOPA managed to convince people that SOPA’s proponents were evil corporations, while opponents like Google—which boasts total assets of over 57 billion dollars—or Yahoo somehow weren’t.

This is, of course, ridiculous.

Shawn Ryan, creator of The Shield, one of the best dramas in recent television history, used his Twitter feed to rail against the opponents of IP protection last week from the perspective of the artists and creative types who are being hurt by piracy.  One of several salient points he brought up is that the search engines opposing SOPA all benefit from the massive traffic that piracy-related searches drive to them.

It’s absurd to suggest that conflict over SOPA was a battle between the financial interests of one side and the principled views of the other, rather than two sides that each had a major financial stake in the outcome.

As with most things, the side that controlled the narrative carried the day.  It will be intriguing to see if a future bill that is more balanced and could get wider support nonetheless falls into the same rhetorical traps of its opposition, ultimately ending in another defeat.

Even beyond the specific arguments over this legislation, a broader, even more telling cultural meme emerged.

As I followed discussions of the merits of this bill, I noticed that many citizens, especially younger people, espoused the belief that protecting intellectual property is a bad idea per se.  To cite perhaps the most high-profile of a hundred examples, this article featured on the Huffington Post and written by a high school student is an articulate rendition of the faulty logic I’ve seen duplicated in myriad online opinion pieces and comments sections.  In it, the author says:

In spite of copyright laws, hundreds of thousands of people use BitTorrent every day. I am one of those people. It’s a convenient and free way to get the movies and music I want and, I think, it’s good politics.

I believe corporations shouldn’t be able to profit from someone else’s creativity. In my ideal world, there would be no corporate copyrights and these materials would be free in the first place. Art would not be a way of making money; its only “point” would be to allow people to experience another person’s perspective and use it to grow. Every song in existence would be available to everyone legally via the Internet, and money would be out of the equation.

The sentiment here seems to be a common one: Corporations (which many believe to be inherently evil in the first place) shouldn’t be able to profit based on the creativity of others.  But this argument goes even further by saying that the ideal scenario would be all intellectual property in the form of art being free to everyone[1].

This is an extension of a theme that bubbled to the surface during the “Occupy” protests in terms of health care, jobs, and education.  While the constituents of that movement represented a range of ideas and goals, there was a clear undercurrent of “essential elements of life should be available universally.”  The two primary targets were health care and education, both of which create significant financial issues for a decent number of Americans.

A similar, but more inane argument has attached itself to the debate over IP.  As referenced above, the idea is that there’s something unethical about profiting on intellectual property, a notion that’s a short jaunt away from a “property is theft” mentality.

I don’t find myself agreeing with Bill Maher all that often, but even he balked at the source of some of the concerns over SOPA.  As he said on Real Time recently, he thinks much of the opposition to SOPA emanates from nothing more than an entitled belief in being able to get “free shit.”

But the people who advocate for file-sharing services as a convenient way to get things for free, or who think not being able to afford movies, music, or TV shows is valid justification for stealing them, or who dismiss the piracy problem as a myth created by lobbyists, also overlook one massive, glaring hole in their argument.

The “evil” corporations that gain financially from these pieces of intellectual property are also the ones who are underwriting the development, promotion, and distribution of IP.  If the financial incentives to fund such work disappears, so will their willingness to fund it[2].

Let’s take a single example as a quick case study.  A popular torrent-related blog called TorrentFreak recently released a list of the most-pirated games of 2011.  The top-downloaded PC game was Crysis 2.  The estimated number of copies downloaded was nearly 4,000,000.  The game retails at $40.

Let’s assume that the number of downloads is vastly overestimated.  Furthermore, let’s assume that the number includes a lot of re-downloads and/or curious people who never would have downloaded the game if they had been forced to pay for it.

Even with very conservative estimates, it doesn’t take long to reach a potential lost revenue figure of over $100 million.

That’s a low estimate for one game on one platform.  What might the entire lost revenue picture look like for all games across all systems?  For all media types generally?

So, a lot of those great movies, songs, shows, and games that pirates enjoy today won’t ever see the light of day tomorrow.  Companies stop making things or investing in them when they cease to maintain a certain level of profitability.  Present-day IP pirates are both stealing from IP creators and naively expecting IP developers to continue to churn out IP that they’ll want to steal.  This won’t continue forever.

Once the incentive to create new content is removed, those who are best at creating and distributing that content will stop doing so.  That leads to a world where everyone is a starving artist, and we get as much good music as a band is able to make when their bosses at Ruby Tuesday or AutoZone permit them to miss work.

This seems to me to be one of those rare cases in which it’s become socially acceptable to express disdain for or callous indifference to victims of a crime, because those victims aren’t popular politically at the moment.

Wherever we wind up going with digital IP reforms, I hope that those Americans who believe that “everything should be free” can at least move off that position in such a way that includes common-sense recognition of the fact that a lot of talented people—not just “evil” corporations—stand to lose money they deserve for their creative efforts.


[1] Ironically, the piece concludes with the following request: “Make a tax-deductible donation so that Youth Communication’s teen writers can continue to publish thoughtful articles for their peers.”
[2] This is also one of the problems with other “universal” programs that break down once they’re socialized.  Cut “evil” big pharma’s profits by 70%+ through policy and see how much longer it takes them to come up with medical breakthroughs.
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4 Responses to The Take-home Message from the SOPA Debate

  1. Thanks for this excellent summary of the issues–as you know it’s really hard to get objective information.

  2. Matt Gregori says:

    I totally agree, much of the outrage is based on a false sense of entitlement. But some of the friction is a result of a rapidly changing market for entertainment and large media conglomerates refusing to adapt. We saw this in digital music where the RIAA was suing individuals (potential customers?) and looking like tyrants. It took Apple to say “Hey, it doesn’t have to be free, but you can’t stick with the album model anymore.” The MPAAs and Viacoms need to realize that people don’t want a 2000 channel subscription anymore. They just want to watch an episode of Dexter whenever they feel like it. And they’ll probably pay a buck or two to do it.

    The bigger controversy here, IMHO, was the legislative process. Basically every member of Congress said “I don’t understand how this interweb works, but I know stealing is bad. Is there some sort of legislative sledge hammer I could use to solve this complex, rapidly evolving problem? Oh, thanks MPAA. That’ll work.” Luckily, there was another powerful, moneyed interest (Silicon Valley) to counter this puppetry. (HT Glenn Greenwald).

    The upshot, pitting Hollywood against Silicon Valley might result in splitting CA in half. With the proper border control, I won’t have to listen to any more people from SF gush about all the “culture” in the Bay area.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      I’m sorry I didn’t see this before now. It’s a great comment, but it was stuck in my spam folder for some reason. Thanks, WordPress.

      Anyway, I agree with you. I think TV as we know it will cease to exist within 5 years (maybe slightly longer, but only due to existing deals that exceed that timeframe). I think everything will be on an on-demand / streaming model very shortly. The cable companies are slowly moving in that direction, but they’re too bound up by the increasingly-antiquated structure of cable television.

      In other words, if the various channels came to Verizon and said, “We’re willing to switch to a format much like Netflix streaming for all content except live events,” I think Verizon would be pinching themselves. The longer they’re forced to cling to the old structure, the less likely it is that they’ll still be viable in 2025.

      I think the same thing is going to happen to movie theaters. Standard theaters now will be like drive-in movie theaters were in, say, 1985. A novelty at best, a dying venue format at worst. I don’t think they’ll totally die out, as major releases will still draw crowds, and there’s something to be said for the theater “experience” with certain types of movies. However, most places also have a model that’s not sustainable long-term.

      I think that theaters, if they’re to survive, will have to refocus on a lot of non-traditional content, like simulcasts of live concerts and/or sporting events, which is something they’ve been doing more and more in the last five years.

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