Why All Filmmakers Should Speak Out Against SOPA

from the you-can-never-stop-the-signal dept

There are many reasons why SOPA and other legislation like it should never be passed, e.g., it fundamentally changes how the internet functions, but here are just two things that should get you thinking:
  1. In 1999, I was vehemently against media piracy. It was wrong, I felt, to "rip off" artists without their permission.
  2. In 2011, I can say with absolute conviction that I was the one who was flat out wrong.
I've worked in the film industry for two decades as a screenwriter, director, assistant director, script supervisor, production assistant... I've seen a lot of change in the film industry in the last decade and realized at some point that I was witnessing a transition arising from the internet; the same transition that happened to the music industry in the 90s. For many of us in the music and movie industries, media piracy was a looming threat on the horizon, a planet killer whose orbit circled ever closer.

So I spent seven years trying to figure out the root causes of this transition and finally grasped a singular truth: media piracy was impossible to stop because -- in the longer lens of history -- media piracy was merely a symptom of a new technology (the internet) that many haven't yet understood how to monetize. Movie studios that built their empire on selling DVDs as units were threatened by the rise of the internet -- after all, how can you sell units if those units could be copied with impunity? But these were the same people who felt threatened by VCRs and those weren't the weapons of mass destruction they thought they'd be, were they? In fact, selling and renting video cassettes turned out to be a huge revenue stream for many, many years.

My 1999 self would have backed SOPA 100%. And that would have been a huge mistake. If I could go back in time, this is what I would have told my 1999 self:

  1. SOPA won't even affect its target group. Those who infringe content have their own private networks outside the reach of prying eyes. So even if SOPA successfully took down a few sites, infringement would simply move elsewhere to areas more difficult for law enforcement to find. Not only that, the more important problem is that stopping file sharing doesn't encourage customers to buy.

  2. The net sees censorship as damage and reroutes. The internet was created by DARPA. Being built by the military, its primary design was to allow a web of information to fix itself as network nodes were destroyed by nuclear blasts. Take out the Eastern seaboard? No problem. New pathways automatically arise to keep information flowing. This is the defining part of the internet. It's why we love it, why we use it, why it's vastly improved our lives and why it's created an entire industry that supports it.

    Okay, so here's the sucker punch: censorship -- or DMCA or SOPA takedowns, call it whatever you want, the internet sees it all as the same -- is interpreted as damage to the network, and automatically finds new pathways to get that information flowing again. By "automatically", I'm not just talking about the network itself -- its users are part of the internet that pro-actively makes their information (illicit or no) available if it's ever suddenly removed. Take down one web site and a mirror site emerges elsewhere. Kill that mirror site and another pops up. That's whack-a-mole on a global scale... and the moles posting illicit content far outnumber the whackers. Moreover, if the studios think piracy is bad now, wait until our current generation of kids -- now accustomed to "sharing" media online -- grows up and implements increasingly easier tools to circumvent egregious DRM. Software DRM is regularly broken within days of a software's release... and last year, Ubisoft's DRM was broken in only one day. That trend is only going to get more acute, not less.

  3. You can't miss a future you don't yet know. Mike had a great post about how we can't anticipate what kinds of new jobs are created because we don't fully understand how new technologies will become integrated into society. Whenever something radically new comes around, it disrupts everything we understand about how things are supposed to work. Human nature is always to resist change unless there is a clear benefit, but with new technologies, that benefit is rarely clear. And for incumbent businesses whose profits are based on the benefits of old technologies, there is no clear benefit. To them, media piracy is a threat that needs to be quashed because it endangers the status quo. Everything they've built their studios on has come from a business model swiftly becoming obsolete. Of course they want to defend that -- who wouldn't? And so they pine about the good old days when they could make movies and just sit back on the money they made from box office ticket sales. They miss that.

    But what if they embraced the future and used the best attributes of the internet to create more opportunities, more jobs, more new content? Then they'd look back on all of us today and wonder what took us so long to make the switch. History shows us over and over that people resist change, then adopt change, transition to it, and finally laugh about how they used to love riding horses, or copying manuscripts, or listening to town criers, or reading newspapers... The future holds incredible possibilities, but you don't know what those possibilities are yet, so how can you say it could be the end of the movie industry when you don't even know what that future really is?

    In 1906, John Phillip Sousa testified before congress about the "threat" of phonographs:
    These talking machines are going to ruin the artistic development of music in this country. When I was a boy... in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs. Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.
    Sousa hated phonographs so much that he sometimes refused to conduct his orchestra if it were being recorded. In retrospect, it's painfully clear how misguided Sousa was: the music recording industry enabled more music to be brought to more fans and reinvigorated music worldwide. Now, our smartphone culture has morphed into recording everything. If it's not recorded, it's lost forever. Like Sousa's orchestra.

    Sousa couldn't have seen our future, but had he traveled here to see how our lives have been permeated with music because of the phonograph, upon returning to his own time, he probably would have missed the future.

  4. Piracy is a symptom of a new technology. You can't stop piracy any more than you can stop spam. Everyone agrees we should stop spam or mitigate against it, right? So why not stop and/or mitigate against piracy? Because at least with piracy, there's a huge opportunity to create value by expanding your fan base. Spam has no such upside potential.

    Movie studios fear how media piracy will disrupt them, and with good reason. Studios look on with dismay as their once iron-clad monopoly on controlling digital content degrades, their bottom line shrinks, and some industry jobs are lost. They try to convince us that SOPA will save those jobs -- saving jobs is an intrinsic good, isn't it? -- but many jobs in legacy industries are lost as newer technologies gain prominence. Sure, I'd love my script supervisor's union to lobby studios to keep my cush job at $40-$50/hour pay... it's hard to argue against your own fat paycheck if it's putting food in your kids' mouths. Yet we'd all see that argument differently if I were lobbying the government for harsher legislation to protect my job as a horse buggy maker, a town crier, or a manuscript illuminator. Not all jobs deserve to be saved. The market does a pretty good job of sorting out which jobs need to be saved, and which jobs need to be excised.

  5. "Piracy is a service issue, not a technology issue." This is perhaps the most important point of all... because it's actually been proven. It's frequently invoked by Gabe Newell, the man who runs Valve Software. Despite claims that the PC market for games has rampant piracy and it's impossible to make money in that market, Valve's software platform called Steam has done phenomenally well from selling digital content to PC users. When Valve was thinking about wading into the Russian market, they were told, "you’re doomed, they’ll pirate everything in Russia". Did Valve lean on Russian lawmakers for harsher anti-piracy laws? Nope. Instead, Valve offered a service better than what people were getting from pirates and Newell says that "Russia now, outside of Germany, is our largest continential European market." You'll never see Newell lobby for stricter legislation like SOPA because Newell understands how the internet works, why people pirate, and how best to compete with piracy.

    Only the movie studios who grok the true nature of the internet -- the ones who use the net to drive sales of valuable scarcities that consumers want to buy -- will restructure and thrive while those who don't understand how to compete with piracy will die off like the dinosaurs that they are. And good riddance to them. We should all be rewarding the smart ones who understand what the internet really is -- a global sharing network. Regulating it with overwrought legislation will just turn that precious resource into a dumbed down Chinese firewall. Harsher legislation will never stop piracy -- quite the reverse, piracy will get even harder to monitor than before -- but harsh legislation will cripple the internet as we now know it. No, thank you.

    The internet is already a highly litigious place for copyright infringement. SOPA, and all the other internet regulating legislation like PROTECT IP and E-PARASITE, will just transform the internet into something even more litigious. That's not a future any consumer or content creator should want to live in. If you get how the internet works, you can make gobs of money. If you don't, you should die off and not make everyone else's lives worse by passing laws that make everyone's online lives that much harder.

  6. On the road to innovation, you remove roadblocks -- not add more. Think for a moment what life would be like for all filmmakers (and consumers) if YouTube had never gone online? Today we all accept YouTube at the center of our video lives because it instantly offers a huge array of content at our fingertips. The problem with SOPA is that it shifts liability -- massive liability, in fact -- and a ton of compliance costs onto internet companies like YouTube. In a post-SOPA world, the people behind YouTube look at the numbers and talk to their lawyers and wonder why they should assume so much more liability and extra costs. BLAM. There goes YouTube. BLAM. There goes Kickstarter. BLAM. There goes a bunch of other internet companies that used to provide the tools we needed to create, distribute, promote and monetize content. If this is all starting to sound like patent law gone mad, you're not far off.

    Thus, while SOPA's objective may be lofty, not only will it not accomplish its objective, but SOPA will actually end up hindering or stopping the kinds of services we need as storytellers and filmmakers. The net result: SOPA won't stop piracy, but it will make things much much worse for filmmakers by making all internet companies too gun-shy to create cool innovative technologies that we need. SOPA may help the big studios who like to think they're the only ones who can provide these kinds of services, but for all the rest of the filmmakers out there, SOPA is an awful idea.

    If SOPA had been in existence five years ago, we might not have had a YouTube today. Mull on that.
That's what I would have told my 1999 self. I doubt he'd have listened, though. After all, it took him seven years to come around.


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  1. identicon
    out_of_the_blue, 14 Nov 2011 @ 12:07pm

    It's not "media piracy", it's "content" piracy.

    "media piracy was impossible to stop because -- in the longer lens of history -- media piracy was merely a symptom of a new technology (the internet) that many haven't yet understood how to monetize."

    Neglecting that minor error, JUST TELL US HOW TO "MONETIZE" the Internet for a movie that cost $100M, then, per Mike's example. -- You can't. There aren't enough "scarcities" possible to recover a $100M in "sunk (or fixed) costs" unless the movie is extremely popular. That's the central problem: you guys DON'T have a "new business model" that works in this environment.

    YET you blithely assert that movie studios throw aside "old" methods that have been working AND STILL WOULD in absence of large-scale piracy. Well, they're NOT going to until you demonstrate NEW methods that DO reliably work. -- Ball's in your court, time for a "hail mary" pass, and hit a home run. JUST TELL US THE NEW, DON'T RE-HASH THE PROBLEM!

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