by Dominic Rushe
18 April 2012
As the demise of the Sopa anti-piracy act showed, established arguments for
protecting the rights of content creators are almost impossible to apply to
a digital world
A protester demonstrates against
the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (Sopa)
in New York.
Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images
A casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that major media firms hate
technology. They certainly fear it.
Since Jack Valenti, the legendary film
industry lobbyist, said in 1982 that the VCR was like the Boston Strangler,
preparing to murder the innocents of Hollywood, they have viewed such
advances as a Godzilla creature rising from the sea to threaten their
In the past 30 years in the US, they have lobbied for 15 pieces of
legislation aimed at tightening their grip on their content, as technology
has moved ever faster to prise their fingers open.
In this seemingly never-ending battle, 18 January 2012 was a defining date,
a day when the internet hit back.
Mike Masnick, founder of
TechDirt and one
of Silicon Valley's most well-connected bloggers, remembers running through
the corridors of the Senate in Washington, laptop open, desperately trying
to find a Wi-Fi signal.
Around him was chaos.
Amid a cacophony of phones, political interns were
struggling to keep up with the calls and emails from angry people across the
US and the world claiming Hollywood-backed legislation was about to break
the internet and end its open culture forever.
In an unprecedented day of
action, Wikipedia and Reddit, a social news website, had
gone offline in a
protest organized by their communities of editors, and backed by thousands
of other sites, large and small.
Google had blacked out its logo in protest.
Students around the world were bitching on Twitter that they couldn't get
their homework done without Wikipedia. Even Kim Kardashian came out
One senator's office that Masnick visited calculated they had taken 3,000
calls. Within hours of the unprecedented assault, Sopa, the Stop Online
Piracy Act, was dead and a sister act, Pipa, a neat acronym for the
tortuously titled Protect IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic
Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act) was sunk too.
the action buoyed up opponents of
ACTA, the US-backed international
copyright treaty that has sparked protests across the continent.
refused to sign, arguing that ACTA endangers freedom of speech and privacy,
and the bill has stalled.
But for how long?
"The industry has this down
cold," Masnick says.
The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA),
Valenti's old stomping ground and one of the most powerful lobbying bodies
in Washington, has emerged bruised from the battle, but few doubt it will
There is widespread anger among leading media companies about the way the
Sopa fight played out. The protest had many voices but there was no doubting
whom the media executives blamed - Silicon Valley in general and Google in
Barack Obama had,
"thrown in his lot with Silicon
Valley paymasters", according to Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp empire
includes the Fox studios.
"Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free,
sells advts around them," Murdoch wrote on Twitter. "No wonder pouring
millions into lobbying."
to blame Google or even to cast this as a battle between Silicon
Valley and Hollywood is to misrepresent a major shift in the media
landscape, say those pushing for a more open internet.
Elizabeth Stark, a free culture advocate who has been campaigning for a
relaxation of copyright law for years, says the Sopa battle will be seen as
a landmark in a much wider debate about the open nature of the internet
compared with the closed, copyright-protected world from before the digital
"This wasn't Google vs. Hollywood," says Stark, a visiting fellow at the Yale
Information Society Project.
"This was 15 million internet users vs.
Hollywood. That's what they don't get. I think they think we can just get a
few executives and put them in a room and call those people 'the internet'.
Well, now they know that's not going to work."
That said, Stark doubts that
this battle is over.
The losing side is rallying its troops. The media giant
Viacom, owner of Paramount Pictures and Comedy Network, has reanimated a
$1bn (£630m) suit against Google's YouTube, which it accuses of allowing
users to use its copyright material from shows such as South Park and The
Colbert Report. No legislation in the US is likely before November's
But as Wikileaks showed, the US has already pushed for Sopa-style
legislation in Spain and in the tech community, few doubt that Sopa will be
After the act was shelved, Cary Sherman, chief executive of the Recording
Industry Association of America (RIAA), which represents music labels, wrote
a blistering article in the New York Times attacking Wikipedia and Google
for spreading misinformation in order to cause a,
"digital tsunami" that
"raised questions about how the democratic process functions in the digital
"The hyperbolic mistruths, presented on the home pages of
some of the world's most popular websites, amounted to an abuse of trust and
a misuse of power.
When Wikipedia and Google purport to be neutral sources
of information, but then exploit their stature to present information that
is not only not neutral but affirmatively incomplete and misleading, they
are duping their users into accepting as truth what are merely self-serving
Wikipedia's co-founder Jimmy Wales says the RIAA is
missing the point.
"They are irrelevant at this point. I don't care what
they have to say. Someone is so far out of touch with what is going on in
Washington, with the public and with their own industry."
For decades, the media industry has tightened its hold on copyright
There are valid arguments for protecting the rights of content
creators, but it is now clear that applying these rules to the digital age
isn't going to work - not least because those now affected by copyright
rules are not just other companies but ordinary people.
"The public think
it's gone too far," said Wales. "It's just possible that we may be at a
point where we can stop the march forward of this ridiculousness."
The internet has changed the world so much that current legislation is not
adequate, said Wales.
"Go back 50 years and copyright was an industrial
regulation that most people had no contact with," he said. "It was pretty
difficult to find yourself in a position where you had committed a felony."
Now the US is trying to extradite Richard O'Dwyer, a 23-year-old UK-based
computer science student, on copyright infringement charges.
"When, 50 years
ago, could a kid sitting in his basement in the UK commit a crime in the US?
What are the legitimate limits to copyright? What's the ethical norm for
"None of that is clear yet. It's going to take time to work that
out," said Wales.
Until 18 January, the debate within legislatures had been
about extension and enforcement of the current rules.
Now he hopes there may
be time for a bigger debate.
"We also need to bring back into discussion
serious issues about the length of copyright, which has been extended again
and again for no good purpose. We need to talk about what constitutes fair
use, what kind of copying can the public do without getting into trouble."
If, for example, someone uploads a video of their child's birthday party and
then finds it has been deleted because a copyrighted song is playing in the
"that's not piracy. That's how we use our music these days,"
says Wales. "A lot of what people want to do now is not legal but should be
legal. We can say that and still be against full-scale piracy."
Wales said he had never heard of Megaupload, the online file sharing site at
the centre of an international criminal investigation, before it was shut
down, but had friends who used it.
"It was people who lived outside the US
who said they would have bought such and such but they don't sell it here,"
he says. "If there's some great show that they are not showing over here,
they are very tempted. We can morally disapprove, but that's the way people
Megaupload was charging a subscription to people who wanted a lot of
"Why should you pay these assholes money when you could pay the
people who actually made it some money?" said Wales.
If the media industry
addressed the needs of its audience, there would be less piracy, he
Stark points to a study by Musiksverige (Music Sweden), an industry
association, that found music piracy in Sweden fell significantly after the
introduction of Spotify, a streaming music service.
"It shows what we have
said all along: people want to reward artists for their work."
Alexis Ohanian, Reddit's co-founder, agrees.
"I'm hopeful right now. These
are not soundbite issues, they are complicated. If you look at the work that
Reddit's community did investigating Sopa, you can see that there is a lot
of thought going into these issues in the community.
Like a lot of rights, I
think we took our right to a life online for granted until it was
challenged. I think we are on guard now."
Media execs are on guard too.
Many look to the music industry and fear they
may be next. Since the peer-to-peer file-sharing site Napster emerged in
1999, music sales in the US have dropped 53%, from $14.6bn to $6.9bn in
2010. The digital world is a lot less lucrative than selling DVDs.
Last year the movie industry made $30bn at the box office worldwide.
Epstein, author of The Hollywood Economist, calculates box office revenue
accounts for just 10% of a hit movie's money. The rest comes from cable and
satellite channels, pay-per-view TV, video rentals, DVD sales and digital
downloads. All that extra cash comes from sources that Hollywood once railed
against, and pressed Washington to crack down on.
But this time Epstein believes the industry may be right to be worried.
As the music industry has shown, digital sales are worth a fraction of
physical sales. There are already signs that the movie industry is changing.
There was a new player in town at the Sundance film festival this year, one
who had financed 17 of the movies on show. That player was you. Kickstarter,
a three-year-old website that hosts crowd-sourced fundraising for creative
projects, had funded 17 films at Sundance, about 10% of the total, and had
another 33 films at the South by Southwest festival in March.
The company is
now a significant player in independent film, allowing cinematic hopefuls to
take their case right to the people.
It's just the beginning of a major
change in the industry, says Kickstarter's co-founder Yancey Strickler.
"I think we are at a point where we are asking whether you really need a
film industry for a film to be made or a music industry to make music.
People can now speak directly to their audiences," he said.
"And the demands
of an audience are very different to the demands of an industry. An industry
wants to know about merchandising tie-ins with McDonalds - that's not
necessarily what the audience is looking for, or what the artist is
Strickler was at Sundance this year, where a number of Kickstarter-financed
films were offered distribution deals.
But many people were also rejecting
deals they saw as disadvantageous.
"Going straight to the web, or video on demand, or doing a deal with
independent cinemas - these are all viable options now," said Strickler.
"Look at the success of that
Joseph Kony video. This is just the beginning."