TMV’s UK Staff Writer Laura G Thorne considers the current state-of-play post-SOPA while resolving the age-old quandary of how many internet pirates can dance on the head of a pin.
Much controversy was stirred up by SOPA (the Stop Internet Piracy Act) introduced by the US Congress in Oct 2011 (and PIPA, its Senate equivalent). For now, the legislation has gone away, pulled by its chief sponsor, Republican Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, “until there is wider agreement on a solution,” according to his website.
However, the itch that SOPA attempted to scratch has not gone away at all. The heated dialogue surrounding the issue brought much needed exposure and prevented the powers-that-be from passing the law while the public napped. That’s important, but consciousness-raising is only a first step. What can really solve this darned Internet piracy problem, and was that really the goal of SOPA in the first place? Is there anyone we can trust to tell us the truth?
TMV sought comment from a variety of sources on this topic: trade groups, labels, artists, managers, marketers, attorneys and tech companies. However a surprising number of sources were unwilling to go on record, saying essentially that they weren’t ready to take a public stand on such a complex issue at this time.
Well, how complex is it? Let’s start with the basic assumption: do musicians (or other content creators, be they filmmakers, photographers, whatever) deserve to be paid for their content? Others might say that the question itself is outmoded, or retort that putting an objective value on content is virtually impossible anyway as it’s based upon supply and demand, thereby changing with the season. In the 90’s, file-sharing services such as Napster established a precedent of downloading music for free, while trade groups such as the RIAA alternated between attempting to control distribution and resorting to heavy-handed enforcement methods that alienated the public.
Peter Jenner, President Emeritus of the IMMF and former manager of Pink Floyd and the Clash among others, observed, “…many commercial licensed services are seen as tools of the big corporations, which are seen to keep the money for themselves rather than passing the money onto the creators (this is often true, for many good and bad reasons). So not only are the public expected to pay for files, but there are also restrictions on what can be done with the files that have been ‘bought’, and then, the public suspects, little or any of the money gets to the creators. This is the ‘crisis of legitimacy’, which strangely, leads to many people seeing the pirates as less exploitative than the corporations. The very fact that the pirates often provide a better service and/or a better selection gives further reasons to use them.”
In terms of the industry’s assessment of the damage that piracy inflicts, conclusions differ. At its essence, the question is whether an illegal download represents a lost sale. Depending where you are in the food chain, it may or it may not; put another way, one artist’s stolen content is another’s free promotion. Many free downloads would likely not be replaced by paid anyway. Whole careers are now built upon content given away for promotional purposes by artists who look to concerts, merch sales and other ancillary forms of income for their primary revenue.
Some streaming services claim that they contribute toward an increase in sales of downloads or CD’s, while others in the industry dispute this; the answer is probably somewhere in the middle, and again based upon your positioning in the marketplace – are you Coldplay or a local band with 600 followers on Facebook?
Even those who are staunchly in favour of artists being paid for the content they create are finding it difficult to muster up unmitigated enthusiasm for the industry’s position, even as they are compelled to support it. Said one major label senior VP, “Both sides here have very strong arguments. Neither is completely off the reservation and absurd… It may be less an issue of what the ‘solution’ is than an issue of not trying to kill a large insect by napalming an entire forest.”
Paul Myers, founder of the UK’s first free ISP and Wippit, one of the first legal P2P music file-sharing services launched in 2000, said: “Every right minded person agrees that if you own, have bought or created property, intellectual or otherwise, you should have the right to say how you want to exploit it, if you want it to be sold or given away. So, in that regard, SOPA and the more relevant ACTA are not an issue… What I don’t understand is how this is used as a blanket excuse to censor — what we don’t want is the loss of freedom and abuse of power that these acts will surely trigger.” (ACTA is the EU’s version of SOPA, which is deemed by some to be “kinder and friendlier” but in some ways is potentially quite similar in terms of its repercussions.)
Myers also remarked upon the case of Richard O’Dwyer, saying “the abuse of power, sadly is already taking place. O’Dwyer (the British citizen that ran the website TV Shack that offered links to third party web sites where users could download un-authorised copyright material) is now being extradited to the US, a country he has never visited to face a possible 5 year jail sentence for his crime. This ‘crime’ is no different from what Google does, except perhaps that Google offers the same a million times more and much, much worse.”
So what was the purpose of SOPA in the first place? Is it all about shutting down piracy and ensuring that rights holders are paid? Well, as so much that goes on in the world today, has to look beyond the packaging to see what’s in the can. Now, TMV is after all The Music Void, not The Conspiracy Void or The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse Void, so we don’t get into that kind of speculation (but confine our areas of concern to whether guitarist Mick Mars of Motley Crue’s hip replacement went well and he’ll be back on the next tour, Eddie Van Halen’s meth habit and if he’s clean this time and did Lana Del Rey really have her lips enhanced by collagen injections).
However, there are those who think that what SOPA and its brethren are really designed to do is curtail sharing of information across borders by no less than attacking the fundamental architecture of the Internet. Think about it: the Internet allows people around the globe to bypass traditional media to access information, as well as create their own content. If you are a traditional media company, or the government, is this what you want people to do? SOPA’s wording (you can read it for yourself) allows alleged violators to be shut down without any consequences and offers the government and ISP’s immunity from suit or liability, even if it is later proven that the accused site did not in any way engage in the distribution of pirated content. Considering the implications, do you w