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.”

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