Where do we go after SOPA/PIPA? How about an “IP-Free Workshop”

Note: About two months ago, when the SOPA/PIPA debate was still raging, Glenn Nano, the convenor of the “Code Meet Print” Meetup in New York, challenged us to come up with ideas for a discussion about piracy. “A possible Prompt: Isn’t Piracy Missing the Point?” he wrote. I hammered out this screed, which somehow got lost in CMP’s system and just surfaced on its mailing list today. A couple of people have told me it’s still interesting, so here goes.

As one who sympathises with the opposition to SOPA/PIPA but—as a journalist covering the media—spends quite a lot of his time talking to people in the content industry who support the bills, I’ve been thinking about how to get this debate unstuck. It’s stuck because, like many debates about deep-seated issues (I’m thinking Israel-Palestine, which I’ve also covered), it’s rapidly become an argument about who is right, rather than about how to move things forward.

And to move things forward, I think the onus is on the anti-SOPA crowd. Convinced as it is that these bills are based on an outdated conception of how content should be monetised (I am presuming that that’s the implication in Glenn’s “Isn’t Piracy Missing the Point?” prompt), the anti-SOPA movement spends nearly all its energy on trying to prove its point and not nearly enough on suggesting ways for those whose livelihoods have up to now depended on intellectual-property (IP) protection to make a living differently.

Because, just as the Israel-Palestine conflict is not, at its base, an ideological one about religion or historical rights (those are just layers added by each side to make the argument harder to win) but a power struggle about who gets to live on which piece of land henceforth, the SOPA dispute is not really an ideological one about whether piracy is wrong, but a power struggle about who gets to determine the ways in which people will make money from content henceforth. When we see a resource, we compete over it; it’s what we have done since we were bacteria. There is a long-established industry that has an entrenched interest in living off content the old way, and on which many people’s livelihoods depend; and there is a rapidly-growing new industry (I use “industry” here broadly: it includes Google and startups and VCs as well as cyber-activists and NGOs) that has a whole bunch of new ways in mind, and on which an increasing number of livelihoods is also coming to depend. And the outcome of SOPA will determine the fortunes of people in these industries.

So both sides are trying to defend the way they earn, or will earn, their living. And there is nothing wrong with doing so; we all need to protect ourselves from poverty.

So why do I think the onus is on the anti-SOPA movement? Basically, because it’s newer. The IP protectors don’t know any other way; change is scary. To win the argument, the opponents of SOPA need to provide convincing alternative routes for musicians, artists, film-makers, and so on to make a living from their content. (There’s also the giant ecosystem of publishers, broadcasters, and all the other baggage that depends on the IP model too, but I’ll come back to that in a minute.)

Sure, we’ve all heard ideas about how this can happen. Musicians can put out their stuff free online and make money from touring, and film-makers can crowd-fund their movies, and stand-up comedians can upload a DRM-free video and politely ask their fans to pay $5 if they like it and please not share it on Facebook, and all that jazz. But go talk to some of these people. I have. It’s not easy for them. It’s especially not easy if you’ve built a career and a life and a home or two doing things the old way. Basically, unless you are a young new artist who is just starting out and is internet-savvy and doesn’t have much to lose, or a more established artist who has already built up a big online following and knows just how to exploit it, trying to work in a world where the assumption is that you cannot rely on anyone paying to own a copy of your content is Very Fucking Scary. And even if you think people are wrong, you can’t fault them for being scared.

So what I would like to see, and I don’t know if Code Meet Print is the place to do it (maybe team up with some other related Meetup groups?), is a serious discussion about how to create pathways. An easing of the transition for content creators. Actual, practical methods for making a living from content in an in IP-free world. Success stories and examples to follow. An IP-Free Workshop, if you will. I’m not convinced, at least not yet, that the future is IP-free, by the way; and if it is, this field is still very much in its infancy. But if you’re going to talk the talk, you have to show people that the walk can in fact be walked.

(An aside: Yes, I’m aware that a lot of people who oppose SOPA don’t oppose IP protection per se—they just want to see a more moderate version of the bill. But I’m assuming that at least a proportion of the people on this list are interested in what a world without IP, or with a radically reformed version of it, would look like.)

Finally, on the small matter of that IP-protection ecosystem: sure, the driving force of the lobbying for SOPA and PIPA isn’t the artists as much as it is the big firms that turn the artists’ work into money and keep a large part for themselves. But if your goal is to defeat those firms, you won’t do it by telling them again and again that they’re greedy dinosaurs. You just need to convince the artists they can live without them. And if that’s true, and the artists leave, the rest will happen by itself.

There, that’s my rant. Reactions welcome.

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