Raiding the future of the Internet
Think right now about your home bookshelf. If yours looks like mine, it contains odds and ends, comic books you’ve saved for years, books mailed to you or bought on a street corner, your own collection of dog-eared titles, some old yearbooks. Now think about the privacy of your own home and the few legal ways in which that privacy can be violated: an emergency response, a crime, a public health crisis. Imagine if once a year you had to open your door to a copyright agent who could scan your library for content that you have not paid for, add up your violations, and send you a bill. Imagine if the agent came by once a week, or even once a day. Imagine that the agent found a picture of the nerdy kid from high school in your yearbook and explained that that kid copyrighted his likeness, so you’ll have to either pay up or destroy his high school photo.
This is the world that content companies want to create. Legislation they have proposed in the U.S. and around the world — SOPA, PIPA and ACTA — would open the Internet’s house to any agent.
Artists and big companies often warn us of the opposite of this problem — the idea that the Internet is a lawless space where content is pirated, stolen and shared recklessly, costing them billions of dollars in lost revenue and shrinking the incentives for artists to produce new works. After all, if they can’t be paid fairly for them, why bother?
But not being able to monetize media doesn’t mean you have to obsessively limit it. As the content companies see it, the bookshelf described above is the data stream heading into your house, and they, specifically those who create music and video, are demanding that governments consent, more or less, to let them tap the wires. SOPA and PIPA are currently on hold, but ACTA, whose provisions are almost as enveloping, is taking root all over Europe, though not without protests.
Amazingly, governments around the world, including the Obama administration, resisted making ACTA’s text public. American politicians said the provisions the U.S. was agreeing to enforce were “national security secrets.” Ironic, then, that the Internet should be open for inspection, but the inspectors’ marching orders shouldn’t.
When the text was eventually leaked, reportedly by EU officials, the measures didn’t quite allow copyright agents to search your house, but they weren’t too far off. One particularly draconian provision allows for border searches of iPods and other electronic devices — not for terrorism prevention, but for theft of intellectual property. I suppose this means that if you were planning on partying to Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album or Girl Talk’s All Day on your Cancun vacation, you had better burn it to a CD and stuff it into your underwear, lest the Border Patrol decide to take your Genius Mode for a whirl.
According to a recent study on SOPA, 52 percent of Americans support penalties of some sort for illegal downloading, but only 36 percent support the provisions for enforcing copyright protection that SOPA allowed. If there were clearer proof that Americans, and indeed people around the world, could be convinced to pay for content if the system were fair, friendly and flexible, Apple or Amazon would have already created it. Which, actually, maybe they have.
Among the serious issues lawmakers and content providers should tackle is fair use. The copyright enforcement systems proposed in recent laws nearly make it a crime even to listen to music that hasn’t been paid for. One thing the music business must do is stop squeezing startups that become successful. As Spotify has accelerated its growth, its royalty payments to the recording industry have, by one measure, eclipsed those of terrestrial radio. If Neil Young is right and piracy is the new radio, music labels should be hoisting the Jolly Roger, not tearing it down.
If the music industry would focus its attention on creating a clearinghouse that allowed for affordable music sharing and discovery through digital tools, it could still save itself. The book publishing industry, which had to wait for the invention of e-ink to get serious about digital, is arguably further along. It at least has begun supporting limited “lending” of books and has even enabled social bookmarking and other similar features. At the same time, the book industry has won some battles against Amazon, regaining its right to set the price of its content in Amazon’s Kindle store.
During a recent panel discussion on copyright, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian talked about the need for the content industry’s scarcity-based pricing model to be superseded by something more attuned to our digital times — something that makes sense not just for businesses but for artists and consumers too. The problem is, the models the industry has proposed far too often resemble the type of intrusive interrogations by state agents one would expect to find in a totalitarian state rather than an open society.
Content creators and artists openly worry about the power of the Internet to rob them of compensation — which, for many, is their incentive to keep creating. What they ought to worry about are the incentives their proposed laws are creating — incentives not only for artists but also for consumers and distribution networks — to abandon altogether their high-walled, authoritarian compensation and copyright enforcement models. Where one castle crumbles, a thousand wildflowers may bloom.
PHOTO: Protesters opposed to anti-piracy legislation gather to demonstrate against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) being considered by Congress, at City Hall in San Francisco, January 18, 2012. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith