Google, Wikipedia, and all manner of folks have taken up the protest gauntlet against SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), a bill that, if passed, would hand over an extraordinary amount of power to the Federal government, restrict freedom of expression (the 1st Amendment), and make life for website creators and owners difficult at best. As the co-owner of a website for young writers, these things concern me greatly, as SOPA would make me responsible for what a member posts. That’s not to say that Young Writers Online is a haven for plagiarized material, but it is an open website and things sneak through. The idea that the entire site should be taken down because I didn’t find out soon enough is absurd. But SOPA makes that possible.
I won’t proclaim to be an expert in this area. If you’re looking for an expert, Cory Doctorow is probably the best choice. But I do find the direction the media empires behind laws like SOPA are trying to take us worrisome. I don’t doubt that piracy is a financial problem, but I’m not convinced that the figures thrown at us by SOPA supporters are accurate or necessarily relevant.
What doesn’t make sense to me is this: if piracy really is a problem to the extent that we’re told (i.e., that if we don’t stop it, the creative industry will go belly up), then clearly the pirates are doing something really well. Maybe instead of wasting millions trying to create and pass abusive laws like SOPA or crack down on pirates and websites, the media empires could take that money to do the following:
- Create better content (let’s be honest: most movies, TV shows, music, and books suck, and not necessarily because of personal taste)
- Make that content easy to access, affordable, and unrestricted to a reasonable degree (i.e., if I buy a digital movie, I should be able to put it on anything I own within reason — say 10 devices at a time or something).
- Change the way copyright is enacted and enforced. In particular, I think we should move from region-specific copyrights, to a generalized “world” copyright for most forms of media. If not that, then at least all English-language materials should be accessible to everyone in English-language countries at the same time — in every format. There’s a lot more that could be said here, but I’ll leave it at that.
- Think of piracy as competition. You can’t beat it by trying to stop it. You can only beat it by doing better.
I think #4 is the biggest issue here. The majority of the media empires haven’t had any real competition in decades. Few of us can tell the difference between 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. based on what they produce (though certainly there are obvious differences between Disney and other studios), so it’s not as if any of these companies can reasonably assert that they make a better product. Movie studios aren’t like different brands of chocolate. And while these empires have been battling against one another in a futile battle of “who can make the better selling movie/book/etc.,” pirates have been coming up with unique ways to share things. In the process, they’ve left a lot of tools behind, which indie creators, software companies, and so on have used to create entire new industries, forms, and so on.
That’s competition. Just because it’s not based in profits (with rare exception) doesn’t mean it’s not competition. The only way to deal with competitors is beat them at their own game. Sadly, most of the media empires aren’t doing that. They’re trying to find an easy way around the problem. Easy ways out always produce unexpected results, and damaging the Constitution is not a worthwhile unexpected result.