If the US Congress and Senate pass the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act censorship legislation it won’t stop piracy. It will make content pirates smarter, more effective and inspire them to develop better tools to circumvent the censorship. Content pirates are doing this already and this legislation will just drive them underground. Consumers who are increasingly frustrated with limited online download and streaming options will get the content they want, however they can. As it is, the majority of people you speak to who downloads content from the Internet, does it illegally in one form or another.
The poll found that 46 percent of all Americans have engaged in piracy, but that young people skew the numbers significantly. And while it found that piracy is common, it also found that most is relatively casual. Only 2 percent of Americans are “heavy music pirates” with more than 1,000 tracks of infringing music; only 1 percent of Americans are heavy TV/movie pirates with more than 100 infringing shows or films.
For most people, downloading music and video goes hand-in-hand with acquiring it legally; less than one-third of admitted pirates copped to owning an entire collection of illicit material. And large numbers of pirates have already altered their behavior in response to more attractive legal services for acquiring content.
When it comes to music, 46 percent of American pirates said that they grab unauthorized music less than they used to thanks to legal streaming services (and the survey was done before Spotify launched in the US). For video, 40 percent of pirates have already curtailed their activity thanks to legal alternatives like Netflix.
While there is evidence that legitimate online download or streaming services availability helps to curtail piracy (I firmly believe that most people who pirate content at the moment will buy their content online if they are getting good quality content in formats they can play on their various devices and at reasonable prices), the industry persists with arbitrary or regional licensing restrictions that block access to online download or streaming services like the iTunes Store, the Amazon MP3 Store, Netflix, Spotify (to name just a few popular options) in most of the world. To add to this there is a growing body of evidence that when consumers can share content they come across on a moderated basis, doing so actually boosts sales. In other words, sharing is caring … for the artists, that is.
The Entertainment Industry, which is behind these initiatives, is going to be responsible for the most pervasive acts of Internet censorship since the Internet first went online and, in the end, it will be for nothing. Their business models are unsustainable and this is why they are in this mess in the first place. Consumers don’t want their content on the terms they are supplying it and the industry is manipulating governments to protect unpopular business models.
The metaphors and catchphrases coming from Entertainment Industry lawyers remind me of the terrorism and communism metaphors in US history, both recent and further in the past. The big difference here is that the Entertainment Industry is so obviously behind these legislative initiatives that any suggestion that this is about protecting artists must be met with incredulity.
What the Entertainment Industry should be doing is redeveloping its business models and taking note of what consumers want. Their business models should adapt to how consumers want to consume that content, not work to force consumers to consume content the way the industry wants them to consume it.
This is a crisis for the Internet.
Whatever happens in Washington could spark an international legislative trend. I just hope that the Internet isn’t irreparably crippled in the process.
Update: Canadian lawyer, Michael Geist, has a pretty good analysis of these bills and why they are bad for everyone on his blog.
Update 2 (2012-01-15): The White House has published a response to a number of petitions against SOPA and PROTECT IP which is encouraging:
While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.