SOPA, Soap, DRIT and the Holidays

by David Kaplan 25 Dec ’11

“I’m gonna clean up this town!” That’s what I think of when I think of SOPA – the “Stop Online Piracy Act”. Over-zealous, naive cowboys in the movies who get the bad guy. Only in the movies. To be clear, I think stealing is bad, bad, bad, evil, evil, evil. If you steal, I’m wagging my finger at you right now! But, SOPA is a lot more than giving the Motion Picture Association of America, it’s supporters, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the U.S. Justice Department broad powers to come into one’s home or business – whether they’re a citizen of the U.S. or not – and turn them into a criminal. Despite assurances to the contrary, the law’s language is written so broadly that uploading YouTube video of your kids singing “Frosty the Snowman” could make your whole family into felons. And, if you think I’m being overly dramatic, if you think much like our politicians and believe the government is incapable of enforcing the spirit of an ambiguous law without crossing the line into absurdity, just ask Rebecca Hains of Massachusetts.

Much, much more…

Let’s put it out there: SOPA is design to regulate the internet. Period. And, not just the U.S.  internet but, the whole internet; giving the U.S. Justice Department the power to sue companies in other countries and shut down their web sites. You can dance around the subject all you want. But, the fact still remains that the law puts in place a set of rules (e.g., regulations) with concrete consequences (e.g., punishments like fines and jail). Sure, those that support the law claim that it helps protect those who work is illegally obtained. But, there are also many who claim it wouldn’t do anything of the sort. Those intent on pirating software would simply move to places where U.S. laws can’t reach. It’s very simple and it’s been done many times before.

Unfortunately, as of this writing, there is more support for SOPA than there is opposition. Many of those opposed to the law – Google, Yahoo and Wikipedia among them – have tried to negotiate less ambiguous terms. Like me, they believe that a well written law can mitigate potential problems – and this isn’t one of them. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was just such a law. One of the many things it does is afford those in violation of copyright laws the opportunity to make it right by removing the offending material. SOPA makes no such provisions. Indeed, it does just the opposite. Under SOPA, a business that is merely accused of violating copyright laws can have it’s web site shut down and all sites linking to it must remove their links. The “offending” business has very little recourse. It also is forced to accept punishment without due process.

A Solution named “DRIT”

Whether SOPA becomes law remains to be seen. However, there are plenty of ways to skin a cat. And, as unpopular as it may be to the plutocrats of our society, I have one. Enact legislation to reduce the statute of limitations for the time copy-written material enters the public domain. We can call it the “DRIT” – or, the Digital Rights and Information Treaty. (I call it a “treaty” because it seems there has been an ongoing digital war regarding intellectual property between producers and consumers for a while now. We all need to bury the hatchets. I called it “DRIT” because I just like the juxtaposition with SOPA and soap.)

Currently, U.S. law dictates that a work may be copy-written for a period lasting the life of the author of the work plus 70 years. The law and its arbitrary timeline was written 34 years ago and well before broadband transmission of movies and music was a household reality. It never took into account that in 2012 and unlike 1978, the vast majority of people who are going to pay for the privilege to view or hear copy-written material are probably going to do so with the first decade after its release. I say “probably” because, though the New York Times graph shows the largest percentage of box office revenue for the greatest number of movies since 1986 came within the first two months after it’s release, I was unable to find hard statistics on the revenue generated by copy-written works over the life of a copyright. I would love if someone could find such a statistic. However, I think it’s fair to say that the same trend – to a lesser degree – happens when movies are released to DVD and Netflix.

Now, will this plan stop pirates? No. It won’t. If someone is intent on seeing a movie or hearing a song the day that it was release and without paying for it – they will. It will likely have the same short-term results as SOPA – which is not much. However, in the long term, how would affect things? Would people be willing to wait ten years – instead of a ridiculous seventy years or more – to watch a movie they’d rather not pay for and aren’t sure they’ll even like?

Anecdotally, I can tell you they will wait to see a movie. Popular when my cohorts it was first released in 1992, it was more than ten years after its release that I was staying in a motel with free cable that I finally saw Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” starring Gary Oldman and Winona Ryder. I know, technically it was “paid” by the motel people. But, the theory still stands. I didn’t want to pay to see the movie when it was released (I was a so-called “goth” at the time and thought the movie exploited and commercialized a “lifestyle” – oy vey. How did my parents ever put up with me?)

The point is, I was willing to wait to see it while the vast majority of my friends paid for the privilege of seeing it when it was released. Isn’t that kinda the business model we have now? We pay $15 for a movie ticket and get to see it the day of or shortly after its initial release. If we don’t see it at the movies, we can pay a discounted rate (i.e., a dollar a day at Redbox, two bucks a Blockbuster, a cable subscription, etc.) to see it a month or two later. After that, we can pay a few cents per movie and see it on Netflix. Lastly, if we’re lucky, the movie is really good and have a decent air wave broadcast network at our disposal, we can see it for free but commercially sponsored on network TV using nothing more than a pair of old-fashioned rabbit ears a few years after its release (They’re circular hi-def Micky Mouse ears, now. But, you get my point.).

A New Year…

So, why not get rid of that arbitrary lifetime+70 year limit? Well, for one, there is still a small but substantial amount of money to be made at the 99 cent bin of movie producing – 70+ years’ worth. It would require studio execs to give up that potential revenue and take a loss – as opposed to our giving up our freedoms and going to… yanno… jail. They would probably have to recoup that lost revenue by raising prices on movie tickets and Netflix streams. But, at $15, movie tickets are already expensive. On the plus side, Netflix (even with its DVD subscription) is still pretty damn cheap. What’s an extra dollar or three in the name of freedom?

We’ll all need to compromise on this issue. There will be some choosing between lesser evils. But, the alternative – that is, SOPA – is far and away the worst and greatest evil there is. The internet should be free. Those that abuse that freedom should be held accountable. But, there’s no reason why we can’t redefine an outdated law to fit with the present day instead of making felons out of preschool Christmas carolers on YouTube.

Happy Holidays, All!

-David Kaplan

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