On the morning of Jan. 18, 2012, America woke up to a digital reenactment of Real Life as experienced by humans at the turn of the century. We were shook. We called and emailed and berated our elected representatives. Surprisingly—given the recent string of questionable legislation passed well within earshot of public clamor—they listened.
With a few synchronized lines of code, the Internet killed a bill. Though heroic it may seem, the group of companies that participated in the Blackout of ‘O Twelve did not step in to save Us. Exactly the opposite.
Yes, SoPi (Stop Online Piracy and Protect Intellectual Property Acts, respectively) would have greatly limited our rights to freely express ourselves using clips from The Lion King, or lip-synching that Whitney Houston song from The Bodyguard, but, often, so does Thinking Twice. The sort of free speech that’s at risk if SoPi were passed would be more subtle.
Say instead of posting “Hakuna Matata” to communicate joy to your friends, you just wanted to watch the movie. Incongruently, you do not want to pay for it. Luckily there’s, in the words of SOPA, a ‘Foreign Infringing Website’ (FIW) that is hosting an illegal copy of the Acadamy Award-winning film owned by Walt Disney Pictures. If Disney found out about the FIW, under the powers granted by SOPA’s passage, they could file a claim to have that site’s domain name blocked within the United States. Further, any site linking to the Infringer, or anybody accepting payment from them or their server would be penalized if the FIW refuses to comply. So in all likelihood we private citizens would see little repercussions to our immediate freedoms. The theoretical consequences presented by the Internet this week would only come to pass if they chose to close shop instead of paying the possibly excessive costs of thoroughly policing the content that users and incidental affiliates chose to upload. That’s just the beginning. In the most extreme of hypothetical scenarios, the government would effectively have the ability to shut down access from within the United States to any website whose content could be construed as in violation of Infringement.
I am wholeheartedly against the passage of either SoPi bill. But we should get some things straight. The reason why we’ve just witnessed history has to do with two things:
(1) People actually called their elected representatives and used democracy to solve a problem.
(2) The Content Distributors (i.e. The Internet) proved that they are much more appreciated by the Content Consumers (i.e. Us) than the Content Producers (i.e. @MPAA, @RIAA, @Metallica). That’s what’s up.
Every year the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) publishes a report on the Five Technologies to Watch. Even though it’s already 2012, I’m sure CEA is smugly patting their backs this week. Within the five trends predicted to be of particular relevance during 2011 lingered The Future of Video Distribution and Consumption.
Since the beginning of time, elite Producers have been floating content on invisible waves that would reach us in our homes on our TVs and radios. When cable came around, the networks didn’t bat an eye. After all, cable in the early days was a wasteland of unwatchable movies, uncomfortably boring softcore and a ton of infomercials. Remember when Comedy Central would just…end? Substitute that for under_construction.gifs, uncomfortably slow-loading porn and just about anything anybody could think to sell; and you’ve got the early web. Cable won. So will the Internet.
People do not want to pay extra for what is apparently free using a service that they already pay for. But it’s not free, right? The studios still pay hundreds of millions of dollars to produce content, the record companies front an inordinate amount of cash to produce artists that may (and often do) totally flop. With SoPi, these content producers would have had an effective way of policing the unauthorized use of their intellectual property. Anybody who owns anything will agree: it would suck if people just walked up and used your stuff all the time and you were helpless to stop them. That’s real, and SoPi was set to be the long-awaited solution to a problem that consumers don’t seem to give a shit about. That is, where their media content comes from.
All the time we hear people talk about the economics of the Internet as though it were a cash blackhole: “Nobody knows how to make money on the Internet.” No way. According to MagnaGlobal, a division of IPG Mediabrands, updated Global Advertising Forecast report for 2011, Internet advertising revenues increased 16.9 percent last year to reach $78.5 billion. Online video shot up 58.5 percent to $4.7 billion in revenue. Those aren’t staggering numbers if we consider the mountains of cash that entertainment suppliers have historically raked in. But there are no manufacturing or shipping costs to weigh, no huge ad campaigns for individual titles. Hulu doesn’t have to post billboards about what shows they’re offering. We’re already there looking for one we want to watch tonight.
We’re moving towards a point where consumers have direct contact with active distributors (as opposed to a movie theater or a TV station where the content is preselected). On the one hand, this takes money and power away from traditional producers like those represented by the MPAA and RIAA. On the other hand, it offers the possibility for actual producers, like the artists and entertainment creators of media content, to find cash success based on what the consumer (i.e. you and me) actually want. We’re not quite there yet, but cross your fingers because this producer/consumer relationship would be ideal. If we work to make it happen.
As I said, it wasn’t the actions of the Internet that made legislators spin maximum distance from the suddenly repulsive SoPi bills. It was us. We called in. We wrote emails. We made this happen. The next step is to articulate what kind of media content we want to consume in the future. Don’t worry. You don’t have to call your local representative every time you need a new movie to watch. It’s as easy as going directly to the artist.
For all the evils that SoPi represents, and the limitations on freedom that we should aggressively fight against by blocking their passage, they might be a godsend yet. The sudden uproar against their potential affects has highlighted a huge problem within the media environment that would have necessitated such ridiculous bills. The only purpose they would serve would be to halt progress by forcing us to receive content the same old way—and paying the same old people to give it to us.
Look. If you want a future that’s made for you, then speak up and make SoPi its history.
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