A few random thoughts on SOPA & PIPA

On the day when a bunch of big Internet companies and sites are shutting down to protest proposed online piracy legislation, a few thoughts about the online piracy bills currently making their way through Congress. (I don’t have a voting representative in Congress, so writing to my representative won’t really help.)

I think the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) in the House and “Protect IP Act” (PIPA) in the Senate are overkill, to say the least, but there is still probably a need for measures to stop piracy of intellectual property. I agree with the White House and Future of Music Coalition that there needs to be a balance between protecting IP owners and maintaining the openness and technical integrity of the Internet.

So how did we get to this point? I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, shared by media and Internet companies. It’s worth remembering in this debate that Google and Facebook, just like the big movie studios and record labels, are large commercial corporations with business models they want to protect.

The media industries, in particular the movie business, have been very slow to adapt their business models to the online world, and have resisted almost every new technology since the VCR and cassette tapes (and possibly before that). I heard this resistance from the music industry first-hand when I worked on mobile digital rights management (DRM) specifications in the mid-00’s.

I can sympathize to a degree: if you make music, movies, or books, for example, you will probably earn less from online sales than physical ones. On the other hand, as Rocky Agrawal suggests, that’s no reason to leave money on the table by not embracing more flexible distribution and sales models.

The Internet companies also share blame for deliberately misquoting Stewart Brand all these years (found the original quote here, page 49), and encouraging owners of intellectual property and content to give it away for free over the Internet. As Brand said (as well), “Information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.”

Google and other Internet companies have not really made information free; they have merely shifted the revenue flow so it goes to them instead of to the content owners. Newspapers, for example, have always been supported by advertising. In the new digital world, the news business is still an advertising business, except the advertising revenue now flows mostly to Google instead of to the papers.

That’s my $0.02. Here’s hoping that the good old democratic process will result in an outcome that we can all more or less live with.