Yeah, Copyright Whatev – What About My Rights?

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The Setup

I guess I’m on a corporate rant! There’s a bill before Congress (called SOPA in the House and Protect IP in the Senate) that is designed to protect copyright at the expense of speech.

What Hollywood Says

We need these bills because we’re losing jobs and money to piracy.

Back Up And Tell It Right

Once again, we’re in that strange world where Congress is putting human principles behind corporate desires.

For the most part, no one cares about copyright and for good reason because, unless you’re in the arts or software design, copyright isn’t something that really affects you.  However, we now all have one major reason to be concerned about copyright: the pipeline for free speech and the pipeline for copyright are now one and the same – the internet.  Hollywood, because it makes all its money off of copyright, has designed a bill that is a “guilty ‘til proven innocent” approach where a mere accusation that a website contains infringing content will result in that website being taken down by the government, essentially transformng the US government into repressive regimes like Egypt, China, and Iran, all for the sake of… a few corporations.

For me, it’s always humans first, and it’s interesting – and kinda frightening! – to see how difficult it is for Congress to view itself as anything other than the legal arm of corporations.

The Benevolent Dolphin

Hollywood’s contention is that piracy is costing billions of dollars in jobs and lost revenues.  This contention, however, is what’s known in cognitive theory as a benevolent dolphin.  Here’s what that means: Dolphins have a reputation for benevolence because we hear many stories about dolphins nudging a flailing swimmer to shore or beating off a shark when someone was stuck at sea or swimming next to boats etc.  As a result, word has spread about dolphin kindness toward humans.  Of course, we have no idea if dolphins are really benevolent because we have no idea how many people dolphins have pushed out to sea and drowned as those people obviously never returned to tell the tale.

Hollywood’s insistence – and Congress’ blind belief – that piracy is costing money and that therefore speech should be squelched in the name of protecting copyright is based on a similar fundamental logic flaw – which is the assumption that piracy has a cost at all.  Here’s why.

First, piracy only applies to people who would’ve bought a particular piece of content but downloaded it for free instead.  If all the Jennifer Aniston movies in the world were somehow locked away and only available for purchase and you never, in a billion years, would purchase one (I admit, I may be talking about myself here), then Hollywood loses no money if you managed to download one since you never would’ve spent that money to begin with.  If, however, you’re that one Jennifer Aniston fan and you download a movie for free, then, yes, you’ve stolen money from Hollywood.  In other words, the cost of piracy only applies to the subset of people who would have paid but didn’t; let’s call this number A.  A, of course, is impossible to calculate, which is why Hollywood uses inflated numbers that include everyone.

Second – and this is where the benevolent dolphin comes in – Hollywood has utterly failed to calculate the benefit of piracy, i.e. the people who bought a product solely as a result of access to an illegal copy.  Let’s call this number B.  If you’ve ever downloaded an MP3 illegally then later purchased the band’s album as a result of enjoying that stolen MP3, you’ve experienced how piracy benefits the industry.  Author David Pogue did a little experiment in this regard whereby he released both a print and PDF edition of his book; the PDF was copied everywhere around the internet for free… yet his print sales rose.  Along those same lines, the megahit children’s book Shut The F*** Up was the consequence of pirated PDFs, and Justin Bieber has made tons of money for the recording industry as a result of singing pirated songs on YouTube.

Thus piracy is only a cost if B – A = (a negative number).  I find it bizarre that Congress is doing something as extreme as suppressing speech based on a non-existent number.  And, btw, this isn’t the first time Hollywood has cried foul about copyright only to turn out to be totally wrong.  In the ’80s, Hollywood tried to destroy the VCR (they lost in the Supreme Court) only to have tapes and DVDs become Hollywood’s largest source of revenue.

Once again, Hollywood is being shortsighted in its view of the future.  This would be totally irrelevant except this time Hollywood’s shortsightedness is going to directly affect YOUR ability to communicate.  Only corporations and Congresspeople could think that the solution to internet piracy would be shutting off speech and creating opportunity for individual Americans to be silenced by the threat of an endless stream of corporate lawsuits – because those RIAA file-sharing lawsuits were so amazingly successful I guess!

The Bottom Line

Congress’ job is not to protect a dying business model. No law requires Hollywood to put its product on the internet. In fact, up until around five years ago with the rise of YouTube, Hollywood’s product came to people via totally separate pipes (cable and satellite) from speech.  Hollywood wants to be on the internet because it’s cheaper for them, and their contention is that, now that Hollywood’s arrived on the ‘net, all other issues better take a back seat to their corporate profit mongering because nothing else matters but them.  I don’t blame Hollywood for trying to pass this law – it’s their business after all and they should be fighting for their interests – but I do blame Congress for its utter lack of thought about the issues.

If Hollywood doesn’t want its product stolen, Hollywood should protect it better, and Congress certainly shouldn’t be taking away our speech in any event. Clearly, Netflix is doing just fine with uncopyable streaming content (as, by the way, is Hulu and every single TV network website that streams its TV shows). If you don’t give people a product they can copy… it won’t be copied.  Put another way, if you don’t want your diamond bracelet to be stolen, maybe you shouldn’t leave it in the middle of Times Square.

The good news, if the these bills pass, is that you will be able to take down the website of your own Congressperson simply by accusing them of infringing your copyright, and by the time your false accusation gets sorted out in the courts, someone else will have been elected. In fact, I highly recommend that you issue takedown notices to all the members of the committees in both the House and Senate as well as the websites of all of the major Hollywood studios so their freedom of speech can be removed just like they’re lobbying for to be.  Just sayin’…