The House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Senate’s companion Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), were shelved last week in the wake of protests by dozens of websites and large numbers of their users, as well as a virtually unanimous chorus of criticism from leading progressive voices and outlets, including Michael Moore, Cenk Uygur, Keith Olbermann, Alternet, Daily Kos, MoveOn and many people associated with Occupy Wall Street. Judging by the fervor of the anti-SOPA/PIPA protests, a casual observer might think the advocates of the anti-piracy bills were in the same moral league as the torturers at Abu Ghraib.
To be sure, the legislators who crafted the ill-fated bills and the film industry lobbyists who supported them have little to be proud of. As someone who makes my living in the music business representing artists who are hurt by piracy, I was frustrated by the failure of the bills’ proponents to explain their rationale in language I could understand. This may have been because the bills themselves were so flawed, but it also reflects the delusion that this issue could be settled in the corridors of Washington without public debate. (This presumption was exemplified by the statements of MPAA Chairman and CEO Chris Dodd, who petulantly threatened that the Obama administration’s defection to the anti-SOPA/PIPA camp would imperil Hollywood contributions to Democrats.)
But before we celebrate this “populist” victory, it’s worth remembering that the defeat of SOPA and PIPA was also a victory for the enormously powerful tech industry, which almost always beats the far smaller creative businesses in legislative disputes. (Google alone generated more than $37 billion in 2011, more than double the revenue of all record companies, major and indie combined.)
It is also worth contemplating the moral compass of Megaupload.com’s Kim Dotcom, who was arrested in New Zealand last week in his 25,000-square-foot compound surrounded by a fleet of Mercedes and Ferraris, all allegedly made possible by selling content stolen from artists (and yes, entertainment companies) around the world. As film producer (Mean Streets, The Last Waltz) and author Jon Taplin wrote on his blog, putting the accused pirate’s riches in perspective, “A bunch of the musicians I worked with in the 1960’s and 1970’s, who made wonderful records that are still on iPod have seen their royalties cut by 80 percent.”
One example of anti-SOPA rhetorical over-reach was a tendency by some to invent sinister motives for the sponsors. On his usually brilliant show The Young Turks, Uygur said that SOPA’s sponsors were “pushing for a monopoly for the MPAA and to kill their competition on the Internet.” This is untrue. They wanted to kill those entities that steal their movies and make money off them, either directly or indirectly. There really is a difference.
In a widely viewed anti-SOPA/PIPA speech on Ted.com, Internet philosopher Clay Shirky similarly attributed dark motives to the studios. The targets are not Google and Yahoo, he said, “They’re us, we’re the people getting policed.” This is accurate only if by “us” he means the people who illegally watched Hugo from the likes of Megaupload. If he means a friend sharing Marianne Faithfull’s version of “Visions of Johanna” with me on Facebook, then the accusation is absurd.