Hollywood’s pirate cure is worse than the disease
The American entertainment complex—Hollywood, the networks, the stations, cable, the record labels—has placed before Congress a simple request: Give us a law to punish Google, PayPal, the Web ad industry, and anybody else doing business on the Internet who may play some intermediary role in connecting foreign “pirates” to consumers seeking illegal access to copyrighted content.
The House of Representatives and Senate have bowed to the entertainment complex’s request. The House bill is called the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Senate’s genuflection goes by the name of the PROTECT IP Act. Rather than just punishing copyright violators, these bills would give the U.S. government new powers to black out Web sites, impose new monitoring rules on search engines and other Web services, rejig the architecture of the Internet, short-circuit the usual due process for Web sites, and authorize new surveillance for a government that just can’t seem to get enough. (See Alex Howard’s learned delineation of the bills from late November.)
So grand is the entertainment complex’s umbrage that I half expect its next move will be to petition the Department of Justice for the authority to shut down the electric utilities that provide power to any and all computers it suspects are pinching its intellectual property.
A survey piece about the SOPA/PIP controversy in yesterday’s New York Times gave Tom Rothman, the co-chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment, the opportunity to spout his industry’s pique. He says:
Our mistake was allowing this romantic word—piracy—to take hold…It’s really robbery—it’s theft—and that theft is being combined with consumer fraud…Consumers are purchasing these goods, they’re sending their credit card information to these anonymous offshore companies, and they’re receiving defective goods.
Oh yah, sure, youbetcha. The entertainment complex missed its big chance to suggest the word “murder” to describe illegal downloads. And it spends many sleepless nights worrying about all the victims of credit card fraud.
If allowing the word “piracy” to take hold was a mistake, that mistake is now more than three centuries old. Adrian Johns’s exhaustive history of the subject, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars From Gutenberg to Gates (2010), explains that in the late-1600s, people were already comparing word thieves to cutlass-swinging brigands. One dictionary defined pirate as “one who unjustly prints another person’s copy.” The Oxford English Dictionary points us to these lines of verse in a poem from 1700: “Piracy, Piracy, they cry’d aloud, What made you print my Copy, Sir, says one, You’re a meer Knave, ’tis very basely done.” Also availing themselves to the word “piracy” to describe literary misappropriation were such writers as Defoe, Swift, Addison, Gay, Congreve, Ward, and Pope, Johns writes.
Piracy has lodged itself in the vernacular because it perfectly expresses the joy of taking a risk to get something for nothing (or get something for an “it fell off a truck” price). Surely an entertainment veteran like Rothman should understand the joy in defying authority, especially arbitrary, imperious authority.
I don’t doubt Rothman’s assertion that some consumers have had their pockets picked while purchasing pirated media, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who complains about it. Yet resorting to this sort of hyperbole is just the Hollywood way of winning an argument. In 1982, Jack Valenti, then head of the movie business’s trade association, told Congress in 1982 that the VCR was “to the American film producer and the American public what the Boston Strangler is to the American woman at home alone.” The happy Hollywood ending to that copyright Armageddon? The VCR made the movie industry ridiculously wealthy by creating a new sales channel.
Pirates and the “intellectual-property defense industry” (Johns’s delightful phrase) have been clashing at least once a century since the end of the Middle Ages. Sometimes cultural changes spur the fight, as in the Enlightenment era when the first modern copyright and patent systems took hold, he writes. But leaps in technology drive the conflict, too, as the histories of inexpensive movable type, the piano roll, the Victrola, the VCR, the personal computer, and the Internet prove. The faster that technology moves, the more vicious the fight. In recent decades, the piracy debate has moved to those new industries that have persuaded the government to expand the IP rights to their plant seeds and genes. (And, yes, the agriculture and pharmaceutical industries have allied themselves with the entertainment complex in this current political battle.)
What stinks about SOPA and PIP is that they would establish a new legal order to replace the imperfect but fair one created by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998. Imagining a worst-case scenario precipitated by SOPA-PIP, Alex Howard writes:
Imagine a world where YouTube, Flickr, Facebook or Twitter had never been created due to the cost of regulatory compliance. Imagine an Internet where any website where users can upload text, pictures or video is liable for copyrighted material uploaded to it. Imagine a world where the addresses to those websites could not be found using search engines like Google and Bing, even if you typed them in directly.
Imagine an Internet split into many sections, depending upon where you lived, where a user’s request to visit another website was routed through an addressing system that could not be securely authenticated. Imagine a world where a government could require that a website hosting videos of a bloody revolution be taken down because it also hosted clips from a Hollywood movie.
The only way to stop piracy, the entertainment complex would have you believe, is to give its and the government’s warships the power to stop, inspect, and track any packet sent on the great sea of the Internet, and impound the ones it doesn’t like. As someone who creates “intellectual property” (I shudder at the phrase) for a living and works for a huge company that owns slews of it, I have a vested interest in this fight. But SOPA or PIP would do excess damage to free speech, free association, free commerce, and innovation in the name of scuttling the Internet’s scurvy pirates. As the character Ramon Miguel “Mike” Vargas says in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil, “A policeman’s job is only easy in a police state.”
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