SOPA/PIPA isn’t a business problem; it’s a culture problem

I am not an eyeballIn the wake of this week’s remarkable SOPA and PIPA turnaround in Washington, Christopher Dodd, the former U.S. Representative turned U.S. Senator and now chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, thinks that Hollywood and Silicon Valley need to meet. “Mr. Dodd said he would welcome a summit meeting between Internet companies and content companies, perhaps convened by the White House, that could lead to a compromise,” according to the New York Times.

Prominent New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson essentially accepted the invitation, saying we need a new framework that is based on a shared set of goals and objectives. “The PIPA/SOPA framework was litgation heavy and very invasive,” he wrote. “It was “we are going to do this to you.” It’s not surprising the tech industry didn’t like it one bit.”

As much as I respect Fred Wilson, this is a clever way of positioning “the problem” as one between two industries, entertainment and technology. Okay. That’s fine, but “the problem” is really between the MPAA and RIAA and the people formerly known as their customers. If you think Fred Wilson speaks for the people, you’re mistaken. Fred is one of the genuinely good guys, but his view is quite business-centered. So who speaks for us in these negotiations?

This isn’t a business problem; it’s a cultural problem, and it must be framed as such in order for these businesses to get it right. It is indeed a legal issue, but it tends to get framed in an archaic setting. That’s the real problem here. If you really want to understand the scope of the issue, take the 14 minutes necessary to watch Clay Shirky’s explanation or read his take here.

Shirky notes that the copyright cartel wants to eliminate the sharing of creative works, just as they’ve wanted since creative works first became an “industry.” As a creative person who’s published books and songs and performed those songs as well, I don’t believe the arts are industries, so they shouldn’t be treated as such. The only fiscal beneficiaries of the arts should be the artists and that begins with being seen, read, heard, watched, etc. I oppose the suggestion that the sharing of works costs artists jobs, and I resent it when this is used to justify arguments that prevent people from seeing, reading, hearing, watching, etc. I further reject the suggestion that a self-serving “professional” hierarchy should the sole determinant of what is seen, read, heard, watched, etc. We’ve  gone nuts with deep pockets needing to protect their status, and this has blinded everybody to the revolution that’s taking place around us.

I have a lot of books in my library and continue to obtain both printed and electronic versions. But I’ve given away more than I actually possess, for I believe that artistic works should be consumed. That’s their purpose. The copyright industry tells me, however, that if my friends who “borrowed” those books wanted to read them, they should have bought them for themselves. This is why I’m so vehemently opposed to legislation such as SOPA or PIPA. At core, such thinking is unnatural, for the artist benefits in ways beyond monetary compensation.

Besides, the harm that these companies are experiencing is self-inflicted, because these industries profit by manipulating and gouging the very people their products are intended to entertain. Treating customers as “eyeballs” for profit is not only disrespectful; it is contrary to the very essence of creativity’s gifts. We hear about how artists are   disrespected in our culture, but that disrespect begins with the industry that exploits their gifts for profit alone.

People have had enough, and the disorganized, chaotic demonstration against it last Wednesday evidenced a dissatisfaction far beyond what a simple business negotiation can deliver. Copyright is not property. Period. Let’s get that right, and the rest will fall in place.



  1. I’d even go further to say that culture only goes part of the way to solve this problem. It’s even more than that (though you’re right). It’s an economic problem, a philosophical problem, and a logistical problem. There’s plenty of complaining on the internet, and there’s obviously no room in a comment to discuss the details, but I’d say there are a number of things we have to do at every level:

    * Firstly, the movie and audio industry needs to review its business model in a practical way. These are the same folks (minus the famous Jack Valenti) that claimed the VCR was like the Boston Strangler to the industry. They need to stop looking at things as they can be and start seeing them as they are: you can try to change YouTube, but it’s not going away. Something they may want to consider is releasing certain clips or bits in the Creative Commons. Think about it: release your trailer into the CC so that you don’t have to worry about people “stealing” it, AND you release the audio and video clips to fans so they can make fan-made trailers and distribute them. It’s free advertising for your product, and you do less work. Who loses?

    * Secondly, our society needs to change its perception of how artistic creations should be used, as you eloquently said in your piece. We need to stop pretending as though a work of art is a patent on those artistic ideas and rather an expression of those ideas in an appropriate medium (or at least that’s what good art is, anyway).

    * Thirdly, again like you said, we’ve got to change this perception that this is really a “fight” between two industry giants, as if the horse and buggy industry was fighting the horseless carriage manufacturers. I see it as an old vs. new, sure, but if the buggy industry had said “hey, let’s take some risks and roll with this new invention”, we might be driving very different vehicles, possibly better ones.

    * But finally, I don’t think a whole lot of this is going to come from any change in copyright law. Congress is going to have its interests, and regular folks are going to want to post pictures of Batman on occasion. To think those two things are symbiotic doesn’t make sense. We can’t expect Warner Brothers and Congress to realize that, so we’re going to have to start taking our own ideas, on a smaller scale, and putting them into some place like the Creative Commons. I’m about to take an entire political organization’s site and do just that, because although we created the content, it doesn’t make sense to limit what we see as an important message. Academia should be the first to do this, especially since their work is often publicly funded. Nobody is going to create a law to make us do that (nor should they, really), so we need to start doing it ourselves. Only after a million smaller producers start doing stuff like this are we finally going to see the need for it.

    Just some of my thoughts,

  2. as i said in the comments over at broadcastingcable- “screw chris dodd, he had his chance, and overplayed his hand.

    i know it doesn’t go as far as your wishes, terry, but he failed to “meet with silicon valley” in coming up with something prior, so why should we think he’ll do so now.

    i agree that i don’t want google, fred w., etc. speaking for the entire internet community. but if enough voices are part of the final “solution”, then i could probably live with the results.

    we live with election results we don’t like.

  3. I’m torn on this whole issue Terry, but bemused by the way you frame it as a debate with “art” and “free speech” at it’s core. Shirky’s piece makes some really good points. but you seem to view society as some nascent virtual artistic commune yearning to be “free”.

    Since when is Hollywood primarily about “art”? The audience conneusseurs, or philosophers? The only people who should benefit artistically from the production of Hollywood movies are “the artists”? Well, then, Hollywood movies simply won’t get made (you may feel that would be a good thing on aesthetic grounds, but that’s a different argument). And as long as wholesale unauthorized posting of those movies (and similar pieces of “art”) for commercial gain by those who had absolutely nothing to do with their creation is a low/no-risk endeavor, there’s an issue that will fester IMO.

    There is a core of digital sophisticates out there who will always know how to capture/trade almost any content and it would be virtually impossible for anyone to stop them, but technically it would not be difficult to render it just difficult enough that the majority of people would never do it. That, combined with entertainment companies making authorized access (yes, for $) easy and convenient, is what the future holds. If you really want free access to Avatar though for you and a few thousand of your friends, that will ultimately be controlled, or no more Avatars will be made. If that’s the definition of free speech, then while we may feel we are virtuous defenders of the First Amendment, in reality, we’re trivializing it. Free speech IS under attack (for real) in a lot of other places. We should focus on those.

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