There’s nothing that works so right that someone can’t, by some edict, wreck it. The internet as we know it could be wrecked. With SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act” being debated in Congress, we have a meta rehashing of the same digital piracy debate we had pre-iTunes.
Where once the RIAA was fighting to educate youth on the vice of music piracy, we now have swaths of Congress, Hollywood, Viacom, and major media lobbying to eschew education efforts in favor of a law that would functionally neuter the internet, creating a Great Firewall of America.
To strip away the veneer, SOPA would allow for government to flag and vanish websites hosting user generated content said to violate intellectual property laws. Mike Arrington summed up the underlying problem with government/lobbying efforts visa vis the internet even before this particular debate began.
Now, as Politico reports, the White House is calling on critics of the anti-piracy bill to formulate their own proposals that would create “private solutions to piracy problems.” This is silly.
Internet media piracy exists because there’s a market for it. Because BitTorrent is providing access to media content people (consumers) want, but which other people (media platforms/networks/companies) aren’t giving them access to.
Before iTunes, the RIAA and record labels tore their hair out worrying about album piracy. Apple thought there was worth (and revenue) to be found in digital distribution, and it turned out they were right. Could it be that the same holds true for movies? Or software, or other media?
We pirate content not because we want to rob content creators, but generally because those who control the content are hoarding it, stowing it away, delaying its release — and so the market punishes them for it by going elsewhere for the content. The openness of the internet allows for other service providers (pirate sites) that expose inefficiencies.
Because FOX delays episodes of Fringe from airing online for 8 (8!) days. Because DVD rentals are prohibited by the studios for 56 days. Because Time Warner Cable refused to renew a sports broadcast deal with the Knicks.
I believe Netflix, Hulu, etc. would see a massive uptick in subscribers if we knew that subscribing meant access to every movie/episode rather than a patchwork library where some are streamable and others aren’t, where new films are missing, etc. Even on iTunes, it amazes me that I still don’t even have the option to purchase many movies (either new or old) in HD. I want to do this. I want to give them money. And I can’t.
I would be happy to pay triple for Netflix if it meant access to more content. Families like Fred Wilson’s already spent hundreds per month on cable and still end up pirating content when their desired media is blacked out. We’re paying for a lot of media already. It’s not really about money, it’s about access.
This is why piracy exists — not because Americans are sitting around stroking their mustaches while plotting their next great torrent, but because they can’t catch a Knicks game when they want to, so they go to a service provider that lets them.
SOPA wouldn’t really be needed if service providers figured out how to satisfy the digital market demands that pirate sites so successfully satisfy. At minimum, giving the government the power to block access to web content isn’t going to somehow lead to a middle class utopia where, thanks to pirate torrents being blocked, I’m finally able to watch Fringe the day (or hour) after it airs, or finally download an HD version of Lord of the Rings.
The White House wants us to put forward “private solutions to piracy problems.” Piracy itself is a private solution to an access problem.