The Silver Lining of the SOPA Debate

If you had asked me how I felt on January 18, 2012 about the prospects for protecting the creative work of artists and innovative businesses in the wake of the internet revolt against the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, my response might have involved some muttering under my breath and a request for a stiff drink.  In the coming week, many who seek to exploit the work of creators without their consent will be looking backwards and celebrating last year’s defeat of those bills.  So one might expect advocates for artists and creators to be in a dour mood again, but there is ample cause for optimism among members of the creative community.

Perhaps the single most important victory to claim from last year’s debates is that the intense publicity around the bills raised awareness about the very nature of creativity on the internet.  Where earlier, little attention had been paid to the ways in which the adulation of “free content” could limit the flow of information on the Internet, and our freedom to choose with whom, and under what circumstances, we interact and share our data and our work, the day after the web protest a discussion was already brewing. In “The False Ideas of the Web” NYT Op-Ed internet researcher Jaron Lanier was one of the first to ask the important question of his colleagues:

“What did you think would happen? We in Silicon Valley undermined copyright to make commerce become more about services instead of content — more about our code instead of their files. The inevitable endgame was always that we would lose control of our own personal content, our own files. We haven’t just weakened Hollywood and old-fashioned publishers. We’ve weakened ourselves.”

And within the year, Instagram users – hobbyists and professionals alike – revolted when a change of terms for the free service allowed Instagram to sell photos commercially without attribution or compensation to the photographer: underscoring that, in the words of Stewart Brand, “information also wants to be expensive.”

Among other notable conversations last year, were the ones artists were having with their audiences.  In June, first generation indie rocker David Lowery wrote a letter to NPR intern Emily White that went viral.  The entire letter is worth reading, and reading again. So much so, that the week it was published New York Magazine rated it “brilliant” on its Approval Matrix.  But seeing as David and I are more or less of the same generation, I keep coming back to this one passage:

 “Many in your generation are willing to pay a little extra to buy “fair trade” coffee that insures the workers that harvested the coffee were paid fairly.  Many in your generation will pay a little more to buy clothing and shoes from manufacturers that certify they don’t use sweatshops.  Many in your generation pressured Apple to examine working conditions at Foxconn in China.  Your generation is largely responsible for the recent cultural change that has given more equality to same sex couples.  On nearly every count your generation is much more ethical and fair than my generation.   Except for one thing.  Artist rights.”

But the reality checks did not come just from artists themselves. Meaningful conversations – in the form of full-length books, including Freeloading by Chris Ruen, and blog posts – were started by self-confessed, former Napster fans.  And popular magazines showed that being indie rock royalty, with songs on the soundtrack of Twilight, appearances on The Colbert Show, selling out Radio City Music Hall, and being in the top 20 record sales in your genre doesn’t even guarantee you a 450 sq. foot apartment in Brooklyn and health insurance.

The conversation is clearly just beginning, but thoughtful discussion with all of its ebbs and flows will serve us better than the talking points and slogans that dominated the legislative season of 2012.

Beyond just an evolving dialogue, it is notable too, that at least some of the goals of the legislation have been achieved through increased private and government action since the introduction of the first version of the bills in 2010.

  • More credit card companies are engaging in best practices. In June 2011, major credit card companies and online payment processors (American Express, Discover, MasterCard, PayPal and Visa) reached an agreement on voluntary best practices to reduce sales of counterfeit and pirated goods by cutting off sites that distribute infringing goods from conducting financial transactions through these processors.
  • More advertisers are engaging in best practices.  On May 3, 2012, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s) issued a statement of best practices to address online piracy and counterfeiting.
  • Internet Service Providers, Movie Studios and Record Labels are collaborating on a Copyright Alert System. Under this system ISPs have agreed to notify users when their accounts appear to be used for illegal downloading activity and to impose real consequences on users who refuse to stop after receiving multiple notices.
  • Google finally started considering whether sites are rogue websites when doing search rankings. In August, 2012, Google announced a change in its search algorithm that takes into account the number of “valid copyright removal notices” when determining the ranking of search results. In its announcement, Google indicated the goal was to help its users find legitimate sources of content more easily.

Of course, although significant progress has been made, more still needs to be done.  As important as this progress is, it must be examined critically. Best practices are laudable, but meaningful only if they are followed.  Notably, in recent weeks the Annenberg Innovation Labhas released research showing that despite industry approved best practices, Google and Yahoo!’s ad networks are still among the top networks feeding revenue to illegal websites that exploit the work of artists, creators and innovators without compensation.

But perhaps even this has a bright side; Annenberg’s work was led by Professor Jonathan Taplin, a former board member of Public Knowledge, who in recent months has emerged as yet another thoughtful voice urging us to pause and reflect on what creativity on the internet would look like if we respected every creator’s rights.

If reports are to be believed, these efforts to ensure all of us can find our place in the creative community either as creators, experiencers or ethical sharers of creative works can make a difference.  As more artists and creators stand with their peers and highlight what is really happening on the internet, more people will listen and think twice.  If there is a silver lining to the blackout, it has been the people who we have met this year: artists, reformed “pirates” academics and lawmakers who want to begin meaningful conversations about promoting creativity and ensuring it finds a place in all of our lives.