Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Empty-Head of SOPA

If you're like me, you spent a lot of your time Wednesday visiting websites that were blacked out in protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (Wikipedia's participation being especially frustrating.) If you stopped to read any of them before groaning and clicking the "back" button, you probably caught a lot of high minded speechifying and pleas to sign some hippie granola petition that probably won't do much good. Still, I wanted to take a moment to discuss how SOPA could effect a blog like The Idol-Head of Diabolu.

As a fan of comics in general and the Martian Manhunter specifically, I've spent well over four years writing daily blog posts, many rather long and filled with strong opinions. I've also featured a lot of artwork on those 1600 or so posts. Currently, my taking a panel here and there to illustrate my words falls pretty squarely under "fair use," a limited exception to copyright law for the purposes of "commentary, criticism, news reporting, research, teaching, library archiving and scholarship." A lot of that ties into stuff folks feel rather passionately about, like free speech rights. The problem is that I'm a human being who can express himself verbally until I'm blue in the face, but my blog is not. Despite fair use laws, under SOPA, some pencil-pushing weenie at a corporation somewhere could take exception to my making a crack about Dan Didio or lambasting an issue of Stormwatch and my entire blog could go blank forever. If I died tomorrow, there might not be very many updates in the future, but at least the blog would still be here. Under SOPA though, years of thought and work could vanish without my being notified in advance, without receiving any semblance of due process, and without my even legitimately infringing on anyone's copyright. The blog is about the Martian Manhunter, which is the property of DC Comics. That alone could be the end of our little clubhouse here.

Personally, I am strongly opposed to piracy and favor the rights of copyright holders. Hell, I hewed so closely to fair use laws that for years my readers suffered through lengthy posts with only a solitary image breaking up reams of text. Other blogs will reprint half a comic and hide behind "low resolution" or some such. None of that matters though, because we're all in the same boat. The worst part of course is that while we all live under the specter of censorship and corporate bullying thanks to poorly written legislation, SOPA won't do a bit of good against piracy.

For starters, what part of "pirates" is not understood? Pirates are already breaking clearly defined laws with substantial associated penalties and getting away with it because they operate outside legal jurisdictions using computer skills greater than those who would pursue them. The people who take advantage of stuff like bit torrents also tend to be pretty computer savvy, so this won't impede their ability to take advantage of the pirates' services. All SOPA ends up doing is inconveniencing law-abiding citizens while allowing a meaty power grab for copyright holders. Maybe if you're not reading my blog you'll buy some crappy comic I'd have warned you off of, or maybe a lack of YouTube videos will get you to watch broadcast television again.

I believe the real problem is an outmoded business plan. I used to work at a video store, and I was always being asked to rent out movies that were still playing in the theaters. Movie studios wanted those people to go to a cinema and pay individual inflated admission prices. The smart money would cut out video rental altogether and offer simultaneous VOD for homebound families while daters and cinephiles like myself continued visiting the silver screen. Instead, some guy at work knows a guy who'll burn the family copies of a new release torrented off the internet and sold for the same $1-3 a months old release would cost at Blockbuster or Redbox. I used to visit a fried chicken franchise that routinely played newly bootlegged movies on their in-store TV. Who profits from that?

I remember paying nearly twenty bucks for catalog CDs fifteen years ago, but I wised up quick and switched to $5-10 used copies. Then DVDs of multi-hour long feature films with a plethora of special features started selling new out of $5 discount bins. Why should I pay that or more for a half hour of audio? What is wrong with the recording industry that this disparity is still prevalent all these years later? Why would I pay the same price for a Lady Gaga CD as a full season DVD set of a TV show? If I could be bothered, and not feel guilty, the album could be downloaded in minutes for free.

Anyway, the good news is that SOPA and its little sister PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) are already losing steam thanks to all that internet grandstanding. Still, I wanted to take a day to open up a dialogue about this business. These bits of bad legislation are still out there, so maybe you could take a minute to turn to a family member or co-worker and discuss why they're a bad idea. Petitions are nice, but a stubborn constituency bucking against corporate dollars jacking with their interwebs is better. Also, the truth is, a lot of people are guilty of taking advantage of piracy. That really is stealing money out of the pockets of creative people who would like to continue earning a living by entertaining you. It isn't enough to keep crumby legislation off the books-- we have to also figure out a way to keep the entertainment industry alive so that their desperation doesn't drive them to such politicking, not to mention killing outlets for artistic expression. Entertainment is not an entitlement, after all, so maybe we need to figure out a better way to keep speech free without shortchanging the business of show (not that they couldn't stand to at least meet their public halfway sometime?)


Anj said...

Great post, echoing my worries as well.

I think I might overdue it with panels sometimes and have tried to cut back recently.

But I don't think I'm a pirate and hopefully DC doesn't either.

mathematicscore said...

It appears we ultimately agree, even if you're dragging your heels a little.

As far as taking money from artists (I would point out that I almost never download movies, music or comics) I see parallels to solar power in that decentralizing the power, either electrical or artistic, is good for everyone except the big companies who control the previously centralized power.

These are the growing pains of evolution, and they better get with it. Also, search "SOPA Emergency IP list" and you'll find the work around is pretty fuggin' easy.

Unternet fer ever.

will_in_chicago said...

Frank, thanks for a great blog post. I think that we are seeing technology change, but we also need to make sure that people get credit and payment for their ideas. It is wrong to steal someone's ideas as your own, and equally so for their work.

Diabolu Frank said...

Right on, Will!

Anj, I don't see that you take the scans too far, and our concerns are bigger than nuanced parameters of fair use anyway. We'll just have to see how things progress.

M.C., the tricky part about artists creating their own internet revenue streams is that somebody like the RIAA turns around and buys bad legislation that forces the artist to pay royalties to themselves through approved channels (minus a totally necessary cut of the profits going to the old guard.) SOPA is just another component in the old media scheme to take rights (and dollars) from law-abiding individuals to make up for their loses against new technology and widespread piracy.

LissBirds said...

Hear, hear. I agree with your line of reasoning in this post, Frank. Especially the notion that if it's already piracy, it already must be against a law. I'm glad it got shot down...I guess Wikipedia is more powerful than I realized.