Advocates of a free and open Internet rose up last week in protest of bills in Washington that would greatly increase the government’s ability to police what is called online piracy. Citizens called and e-mailed their representatives, and Web sites went dark for a day to make a point. The political power of the Internet made news, and the bills were sent back to committee.
Arguing for Congressional action, entertainment industry lobbyists say that illegal file-sharing costs them billions in unmade sales and harms the United States economy in lost jobs.
The House bill, SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act), and a related bill in the Senate, PIPA (the Protect Intellectual Property Act), were intended to curb rogue viewing and downloading of copyrighted content, such as movies and music files. Opponents say SOPA could be used to unfairly punish sites, such as Google, for simply providing access to other sites, particularly sites offshore, where protected material is available illegally. Federal digital take-down orders could black out whole swaths of the Web, they fear, in an unprecedented and massive new form of censorship.
There is no question that the recording industry in particular has been hurt by music’s move to computers. During the decade that file-sharing became popular, record sales declined sharply. But piracy (if you can call it that) is not entirely to blame. Where consumers once shelled out $15 for a compact disc, they now can pay just 99 cents for a favorite song. And you can listen to a universe of online music for free on a computer, eliminating the need to buy discs or to steal. For the movie studios, the loss of revenue has not come so much from people downloading new releases but from the collapse of videotape and DVD sales. Consumers can easily — and legally — watch movies or listen to music at home over inexpensive devices, and that’s what’s really putting the crimp on content producers.
According to a widely cited research paper, online searches for movie piracy sites tailed down in recent years as inexpensive subscription-based services, such as Netflix, took off. So if illegal downloading isn’t the big threat the studios and music-sellers say it is, why the push for help from Washington?
The backstory is that the studios’ contracts with Netflix and other streaming video services will be up for renegotiation in short order. Subscription costs are expected to jump, and this is expected to cause renewed consumer interest in seeing movies without paying for them. Hollywood, with the help of Washington, is trying to get out in front of a rush to find lower-cost or free entertainment. It won’t work.