SOPA, PIPA, and the 99 percent artists

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It’s described as Hollywood v. Silicon Valley, a battle of powerful giants, the entertainment world against the tech world, and at first, the entertainment world won out -- the Stop Online Piracy Act soared through its first Senate hearing and won unanimous committee approval. It sounded so simple -- who’s in favor of piracy?

But the tech titans quickly realized what the bill really said and how dangerous it could be; DailyKos said that SOPA and the companion Protect IP Act (PIP) could “end the Internet as we know it” and dubbed The Great Firewall. So today a lot of major sites are going dark (or launching other protests) to fight the bills -- and it’s making an impact.

The Obama administration now says the bills go too far, and it’s possible that neither will ever emerge from Congress.

More than 200 people gathered at a tech-community rally and press conference in opposition in San Francisco January 18. Framed by protesters holding signs with messages like “Innovate, not legislate” and “SOPA kills jobs,” a long list of tech industry giants testified against the bills, from Craig Newmark of Craigslist to Harvey Anderson of Mozilla to tech industry investor MC Hammer. Many mentioned that the tech industry is the only growing industry in the United States right now, and has created 50% of new jobs in the past three years, and claimed that SOPA and PIPA would halt that “engine of growth” in it’s tracks. 

Hammer said that SOPA and PIPA would repress artists’ creativity. Said the former rapper, “When they say that it is to protect rights and content, that may be the surface, but underneath, as you drill down, you see all these other clauses that will put a tremendous burden upon service providers and a whole lot of other people and give the government the ability shut down sites without due process. This is just barbaric in it’s very nature.”

While to a certain extent this is a grassroots rebellion, it’s also part of a concerted campaign funded and run by some of the biggest corporations in the world (Google, Facebook, etc.)

The thing is, there are two groups of big evil corporations fighting over this -- but one of them is wrong and one is right. The two Internet bills are terrible -- they’ll damage free speech, and they aren’t going to stop piracy.

I called my friend Victor Krummenacher to ask him his thoughts, because Victor -- a rock star, bass player for Camper Van Beethoven and someone who has made his living as a musician -- is actually impacted by piracy. But he’s not in favor of SOPA:

A lot of music I've made has actually been pirated. When we've been able to successfully track down the source of the piracy, it's been from China.

But the truth of the matter, especially in relation to music, is that the Internet has successfully deposed/destroyed scalable economies of manufactured goods (i.e. CDs/LPs etc) and exchanged that for a distribution system that allows for reduced royalty  for internet sale and internet radio play (i.e. Pandora) and hard to monitor electronic files that are easy to share. And it's hard to evaluate peer to peer sharing as piracy, from my point of view.

As an independent artist with hard left leanings, I view this as a way to censor alternative points of view, using failed/outmoded business models as an excuse. Media business has a LOT to contend with in as far as business models. I don't know the solution to monetization, nor do you, or we would be rich men. But this bill, as it's written, and as I understand it, only serves to allow the government another route to censor voices at a time when I feel they're most needed, using corporate income streams as the excuse.

The Internet in spirit, as conceived of (by a bunch of hippies in  California, essentially) cannot espouse censorship as a means of financial control. Jaron Lanier in "You Are Not A Gadget" hits on a lot of the morality ideas and questions I have about the "Internets." But I think innovation in regards to our concepts of commerce, if not in fact about money itself, are where actual solutions lie. The Internet Piracy act has very severe authoritarian undertones that I find disturbing. I think you can coherently argue that something like the Arab Spring could be dissuaded using the Internet Piracy act because uprising is, by nature, bad for business.

 Which is an excellent reason to oppose these bills.

I also asked Johnny Calcagno, a musician and tech head and old friend of mine who at one time worked for one of these giant corporations, to weigh in:

I have mixed feelings about the piracy/creativity duality. Ultimately it comes down to common sense. I believe most of what is pirated is from highly successful artists and companies in the entertainment and software industries. I just don't feel too sorry for them, although maybe the 2% of Bruce Springsteen's bottom line that is pirated away might have gone to support progressive causes.

Mostly though, I think we have to figure out a way for creative types to make a living, to have health care, and housing that works. For artists, I don't think piracy is nearly as big a problem as the cost of health care, insurance, housing, and student loans.

It's also worth pointing out that one would think that between piracy and the information-wants-to-be-free mentality we would be nearing the end times for commercially-oriented creativity, but if anything, there has been of late an explosion in output from musicians, writers, and filmmakers. Some of the same technology that is "ripping off" artists allows (sometimes the same) artists to cheaply and easily get their work before the public.

But still, making a living is a tough row to hoe for even the most talented of artists, and having money sucked out of the creative system and redistributed to Russian mobsters doesn't exactly seem like it is helping.

Alec Baldwin tweeted today "I support strong anti-piracy laws, but the SOPA bill is typical, latter day US Congress overkill." That's farther in the anti-pirate direction than I would go, but I understand the sentiment. And plus, I don't want him to get mad at me!

Jeez. I’m not following Alec Baldwin on Twitter. But I think you get the point: This isn’t about stopping piracy as much as it is protecting profits. And I suspect most musicians and artists (those who are in the artistic 99 percent) are going to oppose these bills. Because the big Hollywood players don't really care about the rights of artists -- and they never have.