In what appears to be another shocking attempt to constrain and limit the functioning of the internet, US lawmakers are currently pushing an MPAA-backed bill that threatens to block American internet users from accessing sites that are deemed to be ‘dedicated to piracy’.
What bill S. 3804 aims to do is twofold: first, for a site based in the US, it would force any US-based registrar (i.e. the people who hand out domain names) to shut a site down if it appears to be dedicated to piracy. And secondly, for sites not in America, it would insist that ISP’s block the domain from their traffic.
So on its surface, this is a bill intended to prevent privacy by censoring access to sites that primarily contain content that infringes US copyright laws.
But underneath the obvious, there’s another reason that the bill is being pushed, and it’s linked to a small bit of news that might initially seem unrelated: movie studios are prepping a service that would let you stream films before they arrived on DVD or Blu-Ray… for around $30.
But what does this slightly crazy plan have to do with the aforementioned change in the law?
It's Not Government's Job To Save Your Business
So Hollywood are trying to do two things: first, get you to pay for really expensive streaming movies so that they have a new source of revenue in between theatrical release and the DVD/Blu-Ray/On-Demand/iTunes release; and secondly, shut down access to sites that may (in part) be dedicated to pirating those films.
What do those two things have in common? They’re an attempt to retain a business model in which the content makers control the distribution channels and outlets for their content, Both the bill and the new streaming idea are a way of preserving an old business model so that Hollywood doesn’t have to fundamentally re-organize the way it does business.
On its surface, this sounds almost reasonable. Piracy’s bad and illegal, right? People who make stuff should be able to control how it’s sold, right? The price they charge should be what the market will bear, no?
Superficially, sure. But both approaches – whether the new bill or the new streaming idea – are fundamentally at odds with the functioning and culture of the web. The tight control exercised by the big players is a legacy of when things were physical: who else but massive studios used to have the resources to spread their films and TV shows across the globe? But now that distribution is so much more fractured, scattered, hard-to-control and chaotic – because, you know, that’s the way the web works – the movie studios are attempting to use the law so that they can keep the same physical business model in an online world: we control how you get these films.
But here’s why that’s wrong. The chaos of the internet means that it’s essentially impossible to avoid unintended consequences. Just because the law might currently be used to shut down sites that trade primarily in infringing material, it will almost certainly still stop the spread of perfectly legitimate material as well.
As many have pointed out, had this bill been law 10 years ago, it’s likely YouTube would have gotten shut down – a platform that has not only performed an immense social good, but is now also one of the main ways the movie biz spreads the word about its films. By shutting down the outlets of piracy, you will also shut down the spread of other material. And who’s to say that the definition of what needs to blocked won’t change over time? This is one example where the usually suspect ‘slippery slope’ argument really seems to apply.
But at the end of the day, what’s behind the bill is Hollywood fighting the culture of the internet using the law. That’s not their job.
Old Media, Fighting Innovation
By using a blanket law to potentially shut down huge websites, this bill threatens to reduce access to a variety of material.
What this bill does is use the government and legal apparatus to say “the movie business worked a certain way in the past and we’d like to keep it that way”. But the problem is that practices like this are akin trying to handcuff a book to someone’s wrist so that they can never give it away or lend it to a friend. The simple invention of a technology called “the paperback” meant that used book sales, lending, swapping etc. are just a fact of life.
The same goes for movies and the internet. You can’t stop the wide scale spread of movies any more than you can force people to never lend someone their DVD. And let’s be clear here: pirating of a movie does not always equal a lost sale. To say that it does assumes that, in the absence of piracy, people would go out and pay for a film. That’s patent nonsense. People pay for what they want, and if they want to go to the theater with friends or rent a DVD, they will. If you offer them something they want, they will exchange money for it; that’s the business model Hollywood should be looking to preserve.
Instead, what the aim should be to either monetize that spread or to provide a service that negates the need for that piracy. There are, after all, many reasons to pirate. When you buy an online movie, it’s often locked to certain hardware (Apple, Microsoft, Sony etc.) and cant’ be easily transferred between devices. When you buy a DVD you often have to break copyright to watch it on a mobile device etc.
As so many have said, when you’re fighting against free – or even low cost services like Netflix – you need to think innovatively. The way forward is about creating the new, not preserving the old – and this is what the movie biz hasn’t gotten round to acknowledging. This bill in another sign of an industry who has become so accustomed to control they are now willing to try and legislate their iron grip on media. It’s wrong-headed and destructive, and indicative of a mindset locked in the past when it should have its eyes firmly set on the future.