You may have heard of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), two hot button bills up for review in the House and the Senate, respectively. If you haven’t, then it’s time to bone up. These bills, in their current form, will effectively break the Internet as we know it, giving both the government and industry lobby organizations unprecedented legal tools to dismantle the free and open web.
The driving force behind these bills has been the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Yes, “The Movies” are trying to cripple one of the greatest creative outlets ever created. As a community (filmmakers, critics, cinéphiles, fans, moviegoers, etc.) we have a responsibility to understand how we got here and how to avoid catastrophe.
About Boning Up
You should do your own independent research on these bills. Here’s where you can start:
- Full Text S.968.RS - PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011)
- Full Text H.R.3261.IH - SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act)
- White House Response to SOPA Petition
- A technical examination of SOPA and PROTECT IP by Reddit’s Jason Harvey. (Cached)
- How PIPA and SOPA Violate White House Principles Supporting Free Speech and Innovation by Trevor Timm at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Please educate yourself and draw your own conclusions.
The root of the MPAA’s problems is online piracy, a scourge they claim costs Americans roughly $250 billion a year. Two questions: how do we define piracy and how do we define lost revenue? Last week, Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman at Freakonomics did:
There are certainly a lot of people who download music and movies without paying. It’s clear that, at least in some cases, piracy substitutes for a legitimate transaction — for example, a person who would have bought the DVD of the new Kate Beckinsale vampire film (who is that, actually?) but instead downloads it for free on Bit Torrent. In other cases, the person pirating the movie or song would never have bought it. This is especially true if the consumer lives in a relatively poor country, like China, and is simply unable to afford to pay for the films and music he downloads.
Do we count this latter category of downloads as “lost sales”? Not if we’re honest.
Then there’s this story at Torrentfreak about Kino.to, a European streaming video site that was raided last year. Prior to the raid, a study was done trying to understand who used the site:
In fact, the study also found that Internet users treat these services as a preview, a kind of “try before you buy.”
This, the survey claims, leads pirate site users to buy more DVDs, visit the cinema more often and on average spend more than their ‘honest’ counterparts at the box office.
The GfK source says that the study shows “If you download films, you have an increased interest in the cinema”, which only highlights how stupid it would be for the authorities to carry out their implied threat of prosecuting Kino.to users.
The definition of piracy has been warped by the MPAA and the RIAA. The premise of SOPA and PIPA is that the sharing of even a portion of a work that doesn’t go through their storefronts is not just wrong, it’s criminal. We can say, “Well of course piracy is wrong,” but that only feeds the argument that most regular people, who interact with one another through the media they share, are criminals.
Keep in mind, when you talk about piracy that there is no proven correlation between a downloaded file and a lost sale. People who do download “pirated” movies tend to be some of the best consumers there are. Need more proof? The top ten most pirated movies in 2011 grossed approximately $4 billion worldwide combined, and that’s only at the box office. Shouldn’t that number be much lower? Are we to believe it could possibly be $250 billion higher?
The Broken Web
Jason Harvey gets right down to it in his aforelinked piece:
SOPA and PROTECT IP contain no provisions to actually remove copyrighted content, but rather focus on the censorship of links to entire domains.
If the Attorney General served Reddit with an order to remove links to a domain, we would be required to scrub every post and comment on the site containing the domain and censor the links out, even if the specific link contained no infringing content. We would also need to implement a system to automatically censor the domain from any future posts or comments. This places a measurable burden upon the site’s technical infrastructure. It also damages one of the most important tenets of Reddit, and the internet as a whole – free and open discussion about whatever the fuck you want.
What these bills come down to is whether or not the Internet can function as a place of free and open expression. It seems crazy to think that the First Amendment could be trampled on in this manner, but there you have it. SOPA and PIPA would make it illegal to share a link to a site that hosts pirated files.
Put another way, it would make it illegal to talk openly about piracy, or maybe even about movies.
In the film criticism world, all we want to do is analyze cinema. There is no nefarious end here. In fact movie blogs are a major marketing boon for the industry. If SOPA or PIPA pass it would limit our ability to share stories, observations, clips and experiences. Our hands are already tied in terms of what we are allowed to share. This would cripple us.
A great example of a site that is doing some of the best work in this space that would be severely damaged by these bills is Indiewire’s Press Play. I don’t know anything about the legal process that backs up their collection of video essays, but I do know that under these bills it wouldn’t take much to make their site seem like a criminal enterprise. All it takes is one studio to take issue with their use of film clips and the site could be effectively dismantled.
Their recent VERTIGOED contest, which I think is a brilliant idea, would be impossible to pull off if these new laws went into effect. That’s a real shame because experiments like it are what move us forward as a creative community. The movie studios own the rights to the movies but we own the rights to the conversations surrounding them. The idea that they could shut down these wonderful explorations of the medium is alarming.
The MPAA and Us
As a community we need to take a stance on this issue. It’s difficult for us to speak out because the MPAA and the major movie studios hold the purse strings, which means they hold many of our futures in the balance. We like to think that they have our best interests in mind. The truth is much simpler and less altruistic than that.
The MPAA is a special interest group that represents the six major movie studios.1 Hollywood made nearly $10 billion last year domestically. All of the MPAA’s members topped $1 billion in US box office grosses except for Twentieth Century Fox (who missed that mark by a hair). It’s important to draw the distinction between who they represent and who represents you.
The MPAA does not speak for all filmmakers, not by a longshot. They are trying to un-ring the bell on the Internet and preserve an outdated distribution model that is buckling under the pressures of widespread innovation.
The Internet may be a threat to the old ways, but for new filmmakers looking to build an audience and find a following, it is a revolutionary tool that circumvents the need for the major studios. The most recent and most publicized proof of the power of new distribution models was the release of Louis C.K.’s Live at the Beacon Theater, which he sold online independently. In his own words: “No DRM, no regional restrictions, no crap. You can download this file, play it as much as you like, burn it to a DVD, whatever.” In a short amount of time he made over $1 million. It’s not as much as studio money, but it’s a great deal more than an independent could hope to make on his or her own with a theatrical release.
The MPAA is scared of having their entire reason for existence upended by changing times. The truth is that if they keep on fighting the future they will be left in the dust. They should be scared.
Filmmakers are finding more direct ways to reach audiences. Sites like Kickstarter, Vimeo and IndieGoGo to name just a few are making the case that artists can reach their audiences directly without the help of the major studios. There is a lot of money to be made in this business from a lot of excited and devoted viewers. The MPAA and the studios it represents should be fighting obsolescence not by trying to revive the days of their monopolistic delivery methods, but by embracing this new frontier.
SOPA and PIPA represent the worst of the movie business. This isn’t why we love cinema and surely isn’t why we make films. The creative community is much smarter and more agile than this; we can grow and adapt to the changing landscape. These bills would make it so we no longer have the freedom to do so.
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Paramount Pictures Corporation, Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Universal City Studios LLC and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.↩