Jan 22, 2012

RIP SOPA

On Friday, January 20, Lamar Smith (R-TX), the chief architect of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and Harry Reid (D-NV), the author of Protect IP Act (PIPA), pulled the controversial online piracy bills after months of controversy and protests, culminating in a day of online protests by major websites who "went black" to protest the bill.  I was late in understanding the entire issue, and indeed really knew very little about it until talk of blackouts started to swirl.  Now, before I have really wrapped my arms around it, they are dead.  Regardless, the topic has peaked my interest, and like any responsible citizen, I have felt compelled to know more.   I initially wrote about it, briefly, in "SOPA SOPA!", but I was looking at the topic very generally.  I have been seeking for a couple of days to find a way to better express my views, without having to reference Rick Santorum.  On Friday, it was done for me.

On the same day the bills were suspended indefinitely, the file sharing website MegaUpload was shut down for copyright infringement and other related crimes.  A modest musician named Jonathan Coulton tweeted in response:


His response was sarcastic of course, but it was picked up by NPR Marketplace for a great interview later in the afternoon.  I found that he put things into perspective quite well, and coming from a humble musician, it had clout.  While you can read the entire transcript here, I'll try to summarize some of his best points:
It is impossible to determine what the loss to companies is.  Some activity may have actually helped small artist gain fans.  It's not as bad as some industry "experts" have stated, causing the loss of tens of thousands of middle-income jobs and hurting artists across the world.  It may, in fact, help some artists.
I have a lot of trouble with the idea that the federal government is directing resources toward an ultimately ineffective game of piracy whack-a-mole (with some unknown amount of collateral damage to law-abiding citizens), when we are not even sure that piracy is a problem.
There's no rule that says a creative person is entitled to be paid for their creative work. In fact, for most of human history, music and art was not something that people got paid for at all.  We, through our actions as individuals, demonstrate what we value as a society. And I think we've all made it pretty clear that our opinions about copyright have really shifted. I just don't think the laws have caught up to that yet.
Entire industries rise and fall as the world changes and our priorities shift. Sorry.
Not every illegal download is a lost sale.  People download things because there is no legal way for them to acquire it.  It’s fine if you want to (fight for intellectual property rights), but don’t yell and scream about how you’re losing business to piracy when your stuff isn’t even available in the box I have on top of my TV.  A lot of us have figured out how to do this.  Make good stuff, then make it easy for people to buy it. There’s your anti-piracy plan. 
This says it all. 

When Napster hit the scene, record companies may have taken a hit in the P&L, but we didn't see music and entertainment disappear, as many pessimists thought.  Instead, I think music flourished.  Now, we have the likes of Pandora.com, which provides the opportunity to listen to vasts libraries of new and previously unknown music that is picked by our own listening preferences.  We are then able to purchase those songs we most enjoy with no more than two clicks.  As well, artists are evolving as well, putting music out and providing free listens and previews, then banking on people buying tracks or attending a concert.  NPR All Songs Considered first listens and previews is just one good example.  A couple of years ago, the band Radiohead offered its new album online for downloading, asking fans to "pay what they wanted" for the download.  This is where music and the music industry has gone, and the rest of us could take a page out of this innovation.

The Internet is so (relatively) new and incredibly vast that current legal structures, as well as our concept of artistic IP, make it virtually impossible to regulate.  More important, the open and sharing concept behind the Internet is such that any regulation would ultimately stifle innovation.  Instead of regulating, we should all be adapting.

Just let the Internet be the Internet.

Mr. Coulton elaborated more on his JonathanCoulton.com blog.  Check it out.