Like It Or Not, There Are Two Sides To The SOPA Debate
The recent firestorm of debate and protest over last month’s proposed bills before the U.S. Senate, SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act), led to unprecedented petitioning by millions of people who believe these bills represent an infringement of their right to unfettered access to the internet. The result was unexpected, as both bills were scrapped in their current form. While opponents of the bills may be right in worrying that the potential for abuse looms large in this kind of sweeping legislation, we can’t forget that there are in fact, two sides in this debate.
I have worked in the entertainment industry for over 25 years, both in radio and as a mobile DJ, as well as a video store owner. I’ve experienced the paradigm shift to the digital age first hand. I remember the fierce resistance record labels and movie studios put up at first, shunning the concept of digital distribution, even though fans and consumers strongly indicated it was something they wanted. This opened the door to a kind of “fight the man” propaganda from fans of the originators of online piracy, Napster, and once that door was opened, it was impossible to shut. The misguided propaganda that pours through even today seems to speak to the rebellious nature of youth, and endorses an idea that works of art and entertainment should be free for exchange, as if the production of these works has no cost or human effort involved.
Most people have no concept of the work that goes into fine tuning a song or album; their knowledge of production doesn’t extend beyond creating playlists for their iPhone. The fact is, production and engineering is as important to the final product as the contributions of the artists. The relationship between the two is symbiotic. There’s a reason that so much great music came out of certain studios, such as Chess, Sun, Muscle Shoals, and Berry Gordy’s Motown labels – those studios had some of the greatest producers and sound engineers in the business. This costs money, and once you take production value out of the equation, and let musicians produce their own material, and the results will seem a bit, shall we say, undercooked. It’s the same reason films go through an editing process, and manuscripts are assigned editors to hone the finished product.
The attitude that file sharing exists as a way to fight high prices set by corporations with deep pockets is a convenient way to endorse the theft of creative work. There is a simple bottom line here. Creative intellectual property is just that, property. It is owned by the creators, and may be sold and distributed at their discretion. Period. It does not mean that people can take it without paying for it, even they are growing impatient for it to become available on VOD or Blu Ray.
The spirit of those ill-fated SOPA and PIPA bills may be overkill, but if something isn’t done, the future of arts and entertainment is in deep, deep trouble. The math is not complicated. If the production of works of art and entertainment costs money, and large numbers of people take it without paying for it, eventually no studio or record label will risk investing in it. That is my greatest fear. Long after I have retired from the DJ and video store business, I still want to live in a world where great albums and films are made.
We’re starting to see the ripple effects of this in the film industry. The past year saw a record number of sequels, which are usually considered the safest bet for any studio. In fact, as Mark Harris of Entertainment Weekly pointed out recently, the top 10 films last year were all sequels; yet going back just 14 years, to 1998, not one of the top 10 was a sequel. Harris called this a “collapse of imagination”, but we really shouldn’t be surprised. Marketing for sequels is built in, and a fan base has already been established. Even though most sequels are generally inferior (with a few exceptions), they usually earn back their production costs. Studios are becoming more reluctant to greenlight projects which break new creative ground, and why wouldn’t they, since revenue for films has dropped off significantly since this became an issue. Instead, they sink small amounts of money into bland, direct-to-video titles that can be peddled to video stores and VOD outlets. Many of the greatest films in history were not the blockbusters; they were the mid-budget titles helmed by directors with a perfect combination of budget and creative freedom to give film fans something extraordinary. Now that we rarely see these titles produced, true film fans are the real losers.
I do agree with opponents of SOPA and PIPA, that putting this much power in the hands of government and corporations is dangerous. Their argument that legislation such as this has a potential for abuse is legitimate. But it’s pretty clear people have adopted an attitude that if they can find it on the internet, it should be free. No artist who has poured time and effort into a CD, film, or novel would ever want that. This is the issue that has to be resolved if any compromise is to be reached.