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The ‘Piracy’ Saga Of

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Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the original sponsor of SOPA.
Beyond The Rhetoric, The Industries And Political Operators That Support SOPA And PIPA Are Attempting To Forestall The Decentralization Of The Entertainment Industry


By John Monahan
Modern Times Magazine

January 24, 2012 — Last week’s furor over the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, and the Prevent Internet Piracy Act, or PIPA, was a monumental exhibition of power of the interwebs and those that operate and use it.

Even though the battle had been simmering at websites such as for months before the brouhaha last week, most of the American Idol viewing public were completely unaware that they soon might be facing jail time for downloading a song or a movie from the wrong website. In December, members launched “Operation Pull Ryan,” to target Rep. Paul Ryan for his support of SOPA.

By the time last Wednesday arrived — and thousands of sites including Wikipedia, reddit and tumblr had shutdown their sites and even Google put a black patch over their iconic logo — opposition to the two acts had spread virally to all corners of the world.

Although mainstream media had virtually ignored the story leading up to the boycott and protest, the news was too big for most news outlets to ignore on Wednesday. The topic became the “water cooler” issue of the week. It was a moment in time when grandparents who have no real idea how to use Facebook something to talk with their grandkids about.

Almost unanimously, the American populace rejected the tenets of SOPA and PIPA. The idea that it threatened the functioning ability of the internet and would kill free speech won the debate.

A week before, while opposition began to catch fire through the Internet, those that backed the acts and those that supported it in Washington, D.C. were hoping that the vast majority of the country would miss their passage. The opposite happened last Wednesday. SOPA and PIPA were effectively dead by the weekend thanks to a brouhaha of internet proportions.

The backers of the bill in Congress, Wall Street and Hollywood are the biggest bullies on the block, which leaves little question as to why it was so far-reaching in its scope, supported by a bipartisan collection of legislators, yet unseen until it was almost too late. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas was the sponsor of SOPA. Smith has been on capitol hill for 25 years and began working on what would become SOPA in 2006. More than ten congresspeople initially sponsored the bill and it even had bipartisan support.

Viacom, the giant that once owned CBS, Paramount and most everything everyone watched in reruns when they were growing up as well as BET and MTV, was the biggest corporate backer. The Motion Picture Association of America was also a major supporter as were a host of individuals and unions who support the film industry.

Meanwhile in the Senate, another little bill that could stop illegal uploads/downloads was also prepared. But PIPA was virtually the same as SOPA, with the details mere formalities to be worked out by the two bodies of Congress.

So what is really going on with this mess?

Simply, the bill is an attempt by those who own the rights to music, television shows, films and other forms of mass-appeal, modern entertainment forms, to maintain control over these industries. These folks hold the vast catalogs of past works and are the exclusive new content creators. They want to maintain this control because their business model depends on it.

But most importantly, it is critical for people to understand that this is not a new battle or a new problem. Ever since the development of the internet, “piracy” has been a problem. It was dealt with early-on in the internet’s development as a compromise that ultimately pleased no one. It is called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and it is the current ‘law of the interwebs’ in regards to copyright protections.

Enacted in 1998 — shortly after Al Gore invented the internet in his basement — the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA, adopted into U.S. law two 1996 treaties of the World Intellectual Property Organization. It criminalizes production and dissemination of technology, devices, or services intended to circumvent measures known as digital rights management or DRM, that control access to copyrighted works. The DMCA also heightens the penalties for copyright infringement on the Internet.

Under the DMCA — and as has been done since 1998 — when a company feels that their content is being used without their compensation and agreement, they contact the company that hosts the website and make a request to have it removed. The host company then has 10 to 14 days to take down the copyrighted content.

The DMCA also has many other little tidbits that create copyright protections, but most of them are outdated. It might deserve to be updated, but the “takedown” of MegaUpload a day after the protests shows that the government has some tools in its box to combat these “pirates” already.

There were many legal battles over copyright infringement that grew out of the DMCA, and not coincidentally, one of the most important and legendary involved two of the biggest guns on both sides of the SOPA/PIPA battle: Viacom and Google.

In March 2007, Viacom sued YouTube (owned by Google) for $1 billion alleging “brazen” and “massive” copyright infringement. Google was spared last summer as the court ruled YouTube was protected under the safe harbor provision of the DMCA.

Not surprisingly, SOPA and PIPA were fast-tracked and a rallying cry was unleashed against “piracy.”

It is virtually impossible for someone on the outside to know for sure, but it is logical that if those who create entertainment that many people want to see, and others make digital copies available for free, they might not make as big of a profit. But to a certain extent it is a cost of doing business.

“Piracy” for copyright holders is equatable to shoplifting for a retailer. Do we need a war on shoplifting or else Wal-Mart will whither away? No, they build it into the cost of being successful. Besides, are those losses enough to justify fundamentally changing the safe harbor provision that protects websites from what some users might be doing?

Internet copyright piracy is against the law, yes, but SOPA and PIPA are more about setting a tone as these content copyright holders prepare for the next evolution of “broadcasting” when all forms of entertainment are available on the internet.

Today, purchased music stays crisp and clear FOREVER. It can go into the cloud and never get lost, bent, or left in the trunk. Replacements are never needed. One also can no longer loan an album to a friend that he never brings back.

Things have changed.

And they will continue to change.

Which is where the real rub is in all of this talk about “piracy.”

The entertainment industry is being forced to become a decentralized collection of independent contractors that no longer need record labels or film and television studios to market and broadcast their shows. The entertainment industry is finally nearing the ‘a la carte’ stage where every one will merely pay to see what they want, song by song, show by show and movie by movie.

Many of the big boys got smart a few years ago and launched which was revolutionary but extremely experimental. NBC, Fox, CBS, ABC and about a dozen other “networks” got together to create one powerhouse video entertainment website. It was exciting and popular, but it also showed the copyright holders like Viacom how dangerous it could be. In the new future a la carte model, the content is truly the king. How it is delivered is incidental. It will eventually lead to a system where content creators no longer need the networks.

Sure there is a lot that still needs to be worked out, most specifically, the revenue model. Paying $2.99 for a movie that you only get to watch once in one 24 hour period is a bit steep, according to some, and prices will go down as options rise. Some revenue models, like those at Hulu and Netflix, charge monthly fees. Ultimately, the biggest initial impact will come to all of the “good ole boys” in the entertainment industry: broadcast and cable networks, cable providers, film studios, and many others.

Why? Because they stand to make millions from content that takes no effort to create and deliver. Those investments are long gone and paid for. Once all old content is online and handled by a content copyright owner, anything they earn from distributing over the internet is virtually all profit.

But after years go by and a la carte entertainment finally arrives on a massive scale, networks won’t advertise the hot new show on television or the newest full-length feature film. That will be left to Apple’s ITunes, Google’s marketplace, Amazon, Netflix or any number of other websites that will be their new competition with several years to build their own catalogs of film and serialized, episodic entertainment.

This will begin to happen this year as Netflix launches their original content with House of Cards and will take it to another level with the revival of Arrested Development exclusively for Netflix online customers in 2013.

When professional sports leagues begin allowing games online, television as it has been known might disappear forever.

Who will be left most out in the cold are the “suits” in Hollywood and New York who aren’t the “content producers” the corporate types at Viacom and Fox lauded as the victims of “piracy” Wednesday and Thursday in wake of the SOPA boycott and protest. Specifically, they are the people who get rich off the creative juices of writers, performers and those that support them.

What they seek is cash.

The deeper one looks into the current interwebs’ piracy battle the harder it is to determine who the real “pirates” are.

John Monahan is a freelance writer from Connecticut.
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