Supporters of the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA (and its Senate-sister the Protect Intellectual Property Act, PIPA) legislation — like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) — argue that legislation is needed because online piracy puts jobs and industries at risk.
While I agree that content piracy is a real problem, the language and implications of SOPA has the potential to hurt the very industries and content creators the bills purport to protect.
Artists and content creators are understandably bothered by how easy it is to obtain content without payment. My musician friends cringe when their albums are available for download even before the CD is pressed. My filmmaker friends distress over seeing the blood, sweat and tears put into a project more easily accessible from MegaVideo or other filesharing sites than from Amazon or Netflix. It’s only natural to want to put a stop to these types of infringing sites and situations.
The backers of SOPA and PIPA believe that forcing ISPs, search engines, web hosts and users to take responsibility for infringing behavior will put a stop to the infringement. This is short-sighted and misguided.
Let’s be clear — there is a large underground business that profits off of copyright infringement and digital piracy. For the most part, however, that business is not online. In parts of Asia, such as China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, it’s a chore to find content for sale that is not pirated. Perfect digital copies of movies, television shows, music and software are for sale in packaging that looks and feels as if it were authentic.
First-run movies hit the streets in China before the films play at the Cineplex. This is not a new phenomenon; it’s been happening for decades.
That industry will not disappear because of SOPA. The groups that source and distribute content will not be affected because they are technically savvy enough to get around restrictions. Finding a web host in another country and using a VPN service to tunnel to a different server is a trivial task.
Moreover, the countries where the bulk of the actual profit from piracy takes place will have little incentive to enforce a U.S. law. Just look at the situation involving the now-defunct AllofMP3.com — a site that sold DRM-free music to users in the U.S. and other parts of the world for $0.10 a track under a Russian copyright loophole.
The site was eventually shut down, thanks to pressure from the Bush administration and payment companies. But Russian courts ruled the site was not guilty of infringement in that country.
SOPA and PIPA have the potential to stop less tech-savvy individuals from downloading the latest episode of30 Rock. For the most avid infringers, however, years of USENET, “warez” forums and private invite-only BitTorrent communities have already taught them how to get around those ISP-infringement letters.
Spend Money on Solutions, Not Legislation
The issue of piracy and copyright infringement needs to be addressed. But this legislation does not do anything to adequately solve the problem.
I have never hidden the fact that I have downloaded content without paying for it. Call me a pirate, call me a freeloader, call me a thief. The truth is, I’ve downloaded hundreds of music albums, television shows and pieces of software since 1998.
To be totally fair, I’ve also spent at least $25,000 on DVD and Blu-ray discs alone, easily another $10,000 on music and books, and at least that much on software.
Most people pirate or purchase pirated content because legal access is unavailable or too difficult to decipher. For years, I frequently purchased an album on iTunes and then downloaded a higher quality version from a BitTorrent tracker to get the best fidelity, as well as portability. Likewise, I frequently downloaded episodes of TV shows immediately after airing but then later bought the show on DVD to get the extra features.
The reason that services like iTunes, Spotify, Hulu and Steam have found success is because they make it easy for users to pay for content they want to access. Instead of investing in legislation that attempts to turn back the digital clock, these lobbying groups should be focusing on initiatives that modernize the way content is delivered.
Stop looking at infringers as pirates or criminals and instead look at them as potential customers. Find a way to make content worth obtaining legally so that artists, distributors and producers can all get paid.
SOPA and PIPA do neither of these tasks. Instead, they focus on an untenable goal of stopping piracy. The real pirates and infringers will be untouched by U.S. legislation. But online freedom will be at risk.