SOPA And The Creative Shift
Right now there is a wave of international protest over legislation being considered by the US government that would, effectively, break the internet. Smarter thinkers than me have tackled this issue and unpacked the detail of what is being considered. If you are an original content creator, or simply enjoy using the internet, then it’s […]
Right now there is a wave of international protest over legislation being considered by the US government that would, effectively, break the internet. Smarter thinkers than me have tackled this issue and unpacked the detail of what is being considered. If you are an original content creator, or simply enjoy using the internet, then it’s worth familiarising yourself with SOPA and PIPA.
These pieces of proposed legislation have heavyweight backers in the creative world, especially from the within the music industry. In fact, I believe the when groups like the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) support SOPA, it says a lot about the widening gulf between the big end of the music industry and most working musicians.
The argument is that SOPA and PIPA are about enforcing copyright and protecting intellectual property. But, the powers these laws would create extent far beyond simple protections. I believe that, ultimately, these laws have the goal of shutting down two perceived threats that come from the internet – sharing and what we could call the “amateur economy.”
We have seen, thanks to the internet, a massive shift in the creative world in the last two decades. I like to explain it this way,
It used to be that those who can do. Now, those who do, can.
What do I mean by that? Well, go back thirty years, the big question was this; can you get yourself a position in the creative economy – a job in a newspaper, a record label contract, a fine arts degree of some such marker of professional standing? If the answer was yes, then you could go on and do the work, be paid for it and so on.
Everyone else was just an amateur. How good you were was secondary to where you were in the system.
But, we have a different situation now. Any creative soul than does the work can put it out there and potentially find a market for what they do, regardless of professional standing. You don’t need a recording contract or a label to release an album. You don’t need a publisher to get your book on to the biggest marketplace in the world. You don’t need a degree to call yourself a photographer.
Just do the work and you can succeed.
The Business Reality
It’s not hard to see how this fundamentally undermines the business model of publishers, record labels, film studios and television stations. Why watch some mediocre “funniest home videos” TV show, when you have a world full of funny stuff waiting for you on YouTube?
It’s worth remembering that businesses do not just compete by offering the best or cheapest product in the marketplace. Sometimes they compete by defining the market itself, through laws, regulations, court cases and industry standards. That’s a way to control who can compete in the market and what they can offer.
And, of course, the recorded music industry started to lose control of the music business over ten years ago.
If laws like SOPA and PIPA ever get passed, they will undermine sites like YouTube, Vimeo, SoundCloud and the like. The irony is that they will also undermine not just the tools that are blamed for the so-called problem of file-sharing, they will also undermine the best tools independent musicians have ever had to make their work publicly available.
The old creative industry was supported by high barriers to entry. When I was a kid you could produce a tape, sell it at your gigs and maybe in a local record store (if you were lucky). But, pressing vinyl, buying radio and newspaper coverage and reaching people on the other side of your state, let alone the other side of the world, cost big money. Of course, the internet has now stripped out a lot of the cost associated with distributing music.
This is the real battleground. Record labels, especially the major labels, were built for a business environment that no longer exists. If free markets were really free, these companies would simply cave in on themselves and either cease to exist, or radically reconfigure themselves. That they are able to fight is largely down the value of their back catalogue and the legal structures working to protect those assets (i.e., the copyright on old material).
I do not believe that information wants to be free. Information, creativity and art want to valued, appreciated and respected. There is a lot about internet culture that doesn’t work to do that. We do need better laws and regulations to value and respect creative work and help artists and artisans support themselves.
We also need to make it easier for people to do the right thing, which includes making it easier and not harder for people to pay some sort of licensing then they use the work of others and making it easier for bright, innovative creative people to start businesses.
SOPA and PIPA are wrongheaded on so many levels. These laws are not about making it easier for people to build new creative businesses, they are about protecting existing assets. By undermining the internet they will not, ultimately stop piracy. But, they make make it virtually impossible for those who want to build new creative enterprises to find markets for their work without replying on heavy and slow moving companies from a bygone era.