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.

Filed Under: copyright, film makers, innovation, piracy, protect ip, sopa

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  1. icon
    Lauriel (profile), 14 Nov 2011 @ 3:33pm


    First off, no solution is 100% - success won't be measured by piracy disappearing entirely nor is failure measured by some level of piracy still existing. Since the days of the reel to reel tape, there has been some piracy and there always will be. Arguing that some piracy will exist is like arguing that the sun comes up - everyone knows it.

    This goes two ways. Most criticism of new business models that attempt to compete with piracy is that they don't combat piracy. You can litigate, or compete, but neither will totally eradicate piracy. The consideration must then be how much collateral damage they do - and here legislative options lose. No new business models that I'm aware of have included censorship or attempted to circumvent civil rights.

    Second, the issue of piracy today isn't the determined few, it's the masses with easy access. Move piracy underground, and the masses won't be there (otherwise it wouldn't be underground, would it?). Secrets can only be kept by small groups. So, seeing my first point, accepting that there will be some piracy (probably private groups, or sneakernet) doesn't preclude the new laws from having a positive effect on reducing piracy.

    The problem is that this is only one scenario - and a rather idealistic one at that. Other scenarios include the one posited by Techdirt - that SOPA will have minimal effect on piracy while having a hugely detrimental effect on legitimate services. Another scenario is that, as this article suggests, it may have moderate success in fighting piracy, but will cripple any future directions technology and internet services can go. Imagine 20 years down the line and still being tied to the massive overheads currently existing with CD and DVD production compared to low cost distribution methods that are developing thanks to the internet? Just because the pirates got there first, doesn't mean that it is an irrelevant process. Again, Valve is a great exemplar - and they aren't going broke due to piracy.

    Third, networks are never entirely outside the reach of prying eyes. As soon as your transit your ISP, you are at least somewhat exposed. You can try to hide it all you like, but almost every time of traffic has patterns, which given time, can be deduced and dealt with - and that would be only if there wasn't an acceptance of point 1, that there will be some and it will be tolerated.

    Third, creative content is never entirely outside the reach of prying eyes. As soon as your transit your creative work, you are at least somewhat exposed.

    You can try to control it all you like, but if it is made public, it is open to piracy. I'd argue that the better option is to make legitimate copies valuable, and worth the cost of paying for.

    For starters, good will still exists. Many fans want to support the creators, and all those who help the creator get the content out. Speaking personally, I want to contribute to help creators continue creating stuff I'll enjoy. What I don't want is to be told I have to pay for it, even if I don't want it, don't enjoy it, or can't afford it. Paying for something isn't necessarily monetary - don't break the internet, limit usage or availability of forums and blogs like Techdirt that I enjoy spending my time on, simply to enforce payment of a couple of products. There is simply no good will generated there.

    Secondly, people will pay for quality and reliability. If a creator's product is neither as good a quality nor as reliable as the pirated version, the issue is theirs to deal with, not mine. If thier content is both of a good quality, and reliable (no viruses, easy to locate, works every time on any platform), then payment is a lot more certain.

    Oh - and if I just don't like it, I won't pay. Both talent and what's "good" in creative terms are subjective. Payment, or lack thereof, may simply be an indicator of that subjective quality, not of piracy.

    Driving piracy further underground will affect none of the above. If content is released to the public, it is able to be pirated. Driving piracy underground will make little difference. The wide availability of pirated copies isn't the issue - it is the ease of making it available that is. That is the issue I would like to see content creators start to address, by making their own products equally easy to access, at a fee that I can comply with.

    Finally, you have to remember that most of the ripping of DVDs and Blu Rays are done by a small group of people, many of them doing it for social brownie points. Remove the social, remove their desired results, and they are likely to give it up or slow down their activities.

    Making it harder to pirate in public rips down huge amounts of infrastructure, makes P2P pretty much passe, and shifts the public's perception and access to pirated materials. Those are the people who are the targets, not the rippers or the hosts specifically.

    Understanding the social as well as economic implications are key. Without it, you can go off on a rant that goes nowhere, and one that doesn't really do anything except rake the same tired list of gripes out over again without anything new.

    So remove the overheads of DVD and Blu Ray, offer content in an accessible digital format, download or stream, either ad supported or for an access fee to a service, and promote the social rewards for going legit.

    In education, research has proven that people's mind disregard the negative, and latch on to the concrete. If you tell a child "don't run", their mind disregards the negative "don't" and latches on to the concrete "run". They might stop running for the immediate moment while you are there, but the word "run" is what is imprinted on their mind. Try it yourself, right now. If I said "don't think about the blue monkey" - what did you do? Stop thinking about the blue monkey? Or did you start wondering exactly what is a blue monkey, what would one look like? Or even, what the hell is she on about?

    In short - promote the benefits of the legitimate services. Win social approval of legitimate services by telling us the positives. This doesn't exclude cracking down on the negitives (in education, there are still penalties for breaking the rules, of course), but the rewards for doing the right thing need to outweigh the punishment for doing the wrong thing. Harsher punishment is only one side of the equation. The only catch is that they have to live up to the promotion.

    Oh, and will you go back 20 years and tell yourself that you don't have a job anymore?

    If I've been sitting there for 20 years wondering why a job hasn't fallen in my lap, I probably deserve to be unemployed. Equally, if I've been employed in an industry for 20 years and haven't been educating myself on how the changes that policy, technology, economics, and public needs have been impacting that industry, I probably shouldn't have the job. I definitely shouldn't be surprised that I'm no longer relevant to the industry. Looking at changes over a 20 year period and then blaming piracy is, to put it bluntly, complete lunacy.

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