SOPA: Was the MPAA Stupid or Manipulated?

There’s little point in adding to the discussion on SOPA (and PIPA), particularly since the protests from this past Wednesday have been so effective. If you don’t yet understand what is wrong with SOPA read this or watch this.

Was the MPAA manipulated?

SOPA is so loosely worded that I have to wonder if there was manipulation on the part of government to disguise legislation primarily giving authorities more censorship control over the internet, as having been originated with an industry that we could have sympathized with as being in genuine need of help. It’s like the Patriot Act part deux. The government or corporate powers can use the powers of these acts to take down whatever they want, without due process.

Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul said it best:

Both PIPA and SOPA give the federal government unprecedented and unconstitutional power to censor the Internet. These bills enable the government to shut down websites that it deems guilty of violating copyright laws. While we support copyright protections, we are also concerned about websites being shut down without their day in court, and making innocent third parties bear the costs of solving someone else’s problems. I will not sit idly by while PIPA and SOPA eliminate the constitutionally protected rights to due process and free speech. For these reasons, I have pledged to oppose, filibuster and do everything in my power to stop government censorship of the Internet.

Or are they stupid?

I find it too astonishing to believe that the entertainment industry could be so ignorant as to not see this act’s potential for misuse. But this appears to be the case, as reflected by comments from NBCUniversal Executive Vice President Richard Cotton who focuses solely on how this will be used against obvious bad-guy foreign web sites operating outside the jurisdiction of the U.S., and fails to acknowledge the potential for misuse. Or in the Twitter comments of Rupert Murdoch, one of the most despicable characters of the last century.

David Pogue wrote a naïve plea to Put Down the Pitchforks on SOPA, admitting that “the movie companies have approached the digital age with almost slack-jawed idiocy”. But he then underplays how the legislation could be used to undermine civil liberties. Clay Shirky fired back with Pick up the pitchforks: David Pogue underestimates Hollywood. He argues that the American media industry has consistently tried to stifle user freedom at every point in history and that their legal arm is out of control and would take every opportunity to get injunctions against sites they don’t like, essentially taking the law into their own hands.

They’re stupid and mean!

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) apparently then has not been manipulated. They are instead just stupid. And mean. And they are using their money to buy legislation. It’s head, former Sen. Chris Dodd, said on Thursday on Fox News:

Those who count on quote ‘Hollywood’ for support need to understand that this industry is watching very carefully who’s going to stand up for them when their job is at stake. Don’t ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don’t pay any attention to me when my job is at stake.

Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, said in a statement:

Threats like that are no way to conduct the serious, sober discussions needed to figure out exactly what ails the movie industry and to come up with solutions. It was Hollywood’s arrogance in pushing bills through Congress without proper vetting that caused them to be withdrawn; these threats also are not helpful to figuring out what ails the industry and how to solve their issues. As the Blackout Day showed, that type of thinking is how the old politics works.

Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper, reminds us that this is not over and that the MPAA will be back for more:

Such ridiculous, destructive bills should never even pass committee review, but we’re not addressing the real problem: the MPAA’s buying power in Congress. This is a campaign finance problem.

It looks like the MPAA came up with this legislation on their own, but we are still left with wondering how both the entertainment industry and lawmakers can be so stupid as to think the loose language in their proposed acts is acceptable. Those of us who oppose SOPA shouldn’t have to do so by opposing the so-called copyright owners. But they’ve set themselves up for a fight by drafting this fearful, crap piece of legislation and by, as Shirky pointed out, past behavior.

Time for war?

Is it time for the tech industry to disrupt Hollywood? Y Combinator thinks so. Paul Graham seeks to Kill Hollywood by funding startups that compete with Hollywood and provide better ways to entertain people:

Hollywood appears to have peaked. If it were an ordinary industry (film cameras, say, or typewriters), it could look forward to a couple decades of peaceful decline. But this is not an ordinary industry. The people who run it are so mean and so politically connected that they could do a lot of damage to civil liberties and the world economy on the way down. It would therefore be a good thing if competitors hastened their demise.

This is an extraordinarily significant statement. Paul Graham is a highly respected investor and startup advisor with his finger on the pulse of the latest trends in technology. {“ The entertainment industry will not win a technology and innovation fight with Silicon Valley. “} They should not have antagonized Silicon Valley by attempting to buy crap legislation.>

Sarah Lacy counters that this may not be so easy for Silicon Valley to pull off:

Eyeballs aren’t equivalent to one another. For Hollywood to be killed, the Internet needs to focus on a metric other than eyeballs. It’s not about mass, it’s about good. That’s absolutely anti-YouTube and anti-Farmville and any other content which we expect to be rapid, mass and disposable. Disposable content isn’t bad, it’s just not everything. And as long as that’s all that the Valley is putting out, we won’t kill Hollywood.

Or peace?

I’m more of the mindset that, if the MPAA and RIAA can back off their arrogant approach, the tech and entertainment industries should just continue to work together. As Fred Wilson writes about the tech industry:

We gave you the Internet. We gave you the Web. We gave you MP3 and MP4. We gave you e-commerce, micropayments, PayPal, Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, the iPad, the iPhone, the laptop, 3G, wifi–hell, you can even get online while you’re on an AIRPLANE.

It’s going to be fun to watch how this plays out. I think we’ve already seen with iTunes how the music industry can be disrupted. We’re starting to see from Amazon (Kindle), Apple (iBook) and O’Reilly (no DRM) how the publishing industry will be disrupted. But I’m not entirely sure how the video industry will be disrupted. Will it be through alternative ways of entertaining people (e.g. games), alternative ways of delivering long run content (e.g. streaming direct to consumer, cutting out the Hollywood middleman), or by disrupting the legal constraints of content ownership? Will it take a company such as Apple or Sony that can work both sides of the aisle to pull this off? I really don’t know.

Netflix and iTunes may be the best current examples of how to innovate forward. They’ve wrestled content from the old entertainment industry, but with many bumps on the road. iTunes basically flattened all the bumps for music by dictating a simple solution and single, consumer-acceptable price.

I personally would like to see the barriers come down that prevents content from being delivered freely. I don’t mean free as in at no cost, but free as in not constrained by contracts and rights designed to protect old companies that limit our choices of how or where to view content, and at reasonable cost. Case in point is the Olympics, which should belong to all mankind, but ends up belonging to NBC who control how we can watch it. Yes they add tremendous value to the experience, but so does CBC Canada who I’d love the option of viewing. Consumers are locked out of making this and many other competitive choices, such as how they can pay to watch Dexter or The Simpsons, or which cable provider to use.

I don’t trust the MPAA to make any of the tough decisions needed to move the entertainment industry forward because they have shown they are resistant to change and so would be cannibalizing their own profits. And that is why they are fighting technology by paying for crap legislation that puts the law in their hands.