SOPA: A Bad Solution To A Very Real Problem
The Web protests that led to a collapse of support in the House and Senate for two ill-designed antipiracy bills are a cause for celebration. In their current forms, both the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the House and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate are heavy-handed and indefensible, attempts to shut down a handful of rogue pirate sites by changing the open structure of the Internet. In allowing the Justice Department to force Internet service providers to block access to websites that “enable” pirated content, the proposed legislation would pose serious threats to free speech.
But even as we celebrate the declining congressional support for these bills, we shouldn’t forget that this isn’t simply a fight about the future of free speech; it’s also a battle about whether the financial interests of the new media will triumph over those of the old media. And, if they do, it’s not clear that the public interest will always be served. As the protest song that sprang up this week put it, “Our web means more than lawyers, lobbies, and lies, so speak up before the Internet dies.” There are lawyers and lobbies on both sides of the debate, however, and neither side is devoted to the promotion of creativity for its own sake.
Ultimately, it’s too simplistic to see the copyright wars as a battle between idealistic tech companies that want information to be free, and the greedy old media that wants to preserve a dying business model. Instead, as Robert Levine argues in his new book Free Ride: How Digital Parasites Are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back, the real battle is between two competing business models. On the one hand, there are the publishers, record companies, and movie companies that fund the content people want to watch and read. On the other, there are the tech companies, like Google and Facebook, that want to distribute content created with other people’s money and sell more ads as a result. By destroying the business model that makes it possible for AMC to invest in excellent shows like “Mad Men,” Levine argues, the tech companies will create a digital wasteland dominated by self-produced cat videos.
There’s much to be said for Levine’s analysis of the competing financial interests on both sides of the debate: The current system looks much better for the tech companies that distribute other people’s content than for the old media companies that fund it. And to the degree that it’s harder for artists and journalists to get paid for their work, the public may not benefit in the long run. What’s still unclear—and is important to figure out—is how great a role Internet piracy is playing in destroying the business model that used to allow old media companies to invest in authors, musicians, and movie producers, and support them over the course of a career.