We Need to Talk about Piracy (But We Must Stop SOPA First)
By zephoria on January 17, 2012
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Since the rise of Napster, the media industry has been in a furor over media piracy. Not only do they get pissed when people rip and distribute media content on the internet, they throw a fit whenever teenagers make their own music videos based on their favorite song. Even though every child in America is asked to engage in remix in schools for educational purposes ("Write a 5-paragraph essay as though you were dropped into Lord of the Flies"), doing so for fun and sharing your output on the internet has been deemed criminal. Media piracy is messy, because access to content is access to social status and power in a networked era. Some people are simply "stealing" but others are actually just trying to participate in culture. It's complicated. (See: "Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property" and "Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates" to go deeper.)
Most in the media industry refuse to talk about media piracy beyond the economic components. But the weird thing about media piracy is that Apple highlighted that the media industry could actually innovate their way around this problem. Sure, it doesn't force everyone to pay for consuming content, but when was that ever the case? When I was in high school, I went over to friends' houses and watched their TV and movies without paying for them. Even though the media industry is making buckets of money - and even though people have been shown to be willing to pay for content online when it's easy - the media industry is more interested in creating burdensome regulations than in developing innovative ways for consumers to get access to content. (Yo HBO! Why the hell can't I access your content legally online if I don't subscribe to cable!?!?) I guess I shouldn't be surprised... It's cheaper to lawyer up than hire geeks these days.
Of course, it's not like there aren't a bazillion laws on the books to curb media piracy. What frustrates the media industry is that they don't have jurisdiction over foreign countries and foreign web servers. Bills like SOPA aren't really meant to curb piracy; they're meant to limit Americans' access to information flows in foreign countries by censoring what kinds of information can flow across American companies' servers. Eeek. I can't help but think back to a point that Larry Lessig makes in "Republic, Lost" where he points out that there are more laws to curb media piracy on the books than there are to curb pollution. Le sigh.
Don't get me wrong: there are definitely piracy practices out there that I'd like to see regulators help curb. For example, I'm actually quite in favor of making sure that companies can't engage in unfair competition. I agree with the White House that certain kinds of piracy practices undermine American jobs. But I'm not in favor of using strong arm tactics to go after individuals' cultural practices. Nor am I interested in seeing "solutions" that focus on turning America into more of a bubble. Shame on media companies for trying to silence and censor information flows in their efforts to strong arm consumers. This isn't good for consumers and it's certainly not good for citizens.
As we go deeper into an information age, I think that we need to have serious conversations about what is colloquially termed piracy. We need to distinguish media piracy from software piracy because they're not the same thing. We need to seriously interrogate fairness and equality, creative production and cultural engagement. And we need to seriously take into consideration why people do what they do. I strongly believe that when people work en masse to route around a system, the system is most likely the thing that needs the fixing, not the people.
These issues are challenging and they require people to untangle a wide variety of different conflicting and interwoven practices. Unfortunately, challenging cultural conversations are really hard to have when the government chooses to fast track faulty legislation on the behalf of one industry and to the detriment of another. SOPA has turned into a gnarly battle between old and new media, but the implications of this battle extend far beyond the corporate actors. My hope is that SOPA goes away immediately. But I also hope that we can begin the harder work of actually interrogating how different aspects of piracy are affecting society, business, and cultural practices.
In the meantime, I ask you to stand with me to oppose SOPA. Learn what's happening and voice your opinion. Legislative issues like this affect all of us.
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