Thursday, January 19, 2012

SOPA, Digital Piracy, and the Nature of Protest

In general, I'm not much of a join-the-protest kind of guy.  It's hardly that I don't have strong opinions about things, but joining someone else's protest always comes with accepting their agendas and their baggage.  That's where I generally get off the train: thanks, but I've got enough of my own.  It probably has to do with having come of political age in the '90s: listening to one too many dorks with a hacky sack ramble incoherently in slogan-speak about freeing Tibet when they probably couldn't find the place on a map is the sort of thing that will instill a deep-seeded aversion in a lad.  It's also essentially the reason I'll never give the music of the Grateful Dead a fair chance, but that's a different rant for another day.

I decided to join (alright, well, at least publically acknowledge) the SOPA blackout for a simple reason: some things are so egregious that deep-seeded aversions need to be set aside.  Think about it for a second: this piece of legislation would put the ability to black out web sites - without any sort of due process or legal proceedings before the blackout - in the hands of two organizations.  Which two, you ask?  Large corporations and the government.  Personally, I can't imagine two organizations more likely to abuse such a power.  The whole thing is so perfectly cynical that it's nearly art: "If you give us free reign and validate it, we'll do the same for you!"  Mark my words: without rampant public outcry, there is no way SOPA would have failed.  It's a perfect win-win for those in power.  It's also a perfect loss for our Constitutionally-granted freedom of speech, but hey: in the past decade or so, both we the people and our leaders have made clear time and again that the silly old Constitution is a fairly negotiable document.

The vessel used to carry SOPA, to lend it the feel of authenticity, is the issue of copyright protection.  Unfortunately, the time to do something about digital piracy was about a decade or so ago, before easily manipulated peer-to-peer software and broadband connections became standard in a majority of American homes.  The fact that the RIAA, MPAA and other similar industry groups still speak of digital piracy as though it's something on their potential event horizon that they'd like to avoid rather than a revolution that both passed and planted some now-deep roots about a decade ago is hilarious to me.  Frankly, it's difficult for anyone with even a passing interest in the technology involved in file sharing and digital piracy to imagine any sort of panacea for it being developed at this late date.

But let's play pretend for a moment, shall we?  Suppose such a panacea existed.  It goes without saying that SOPA isn't it, but let's pretend that some sort of viable solution suddenly emerged.  Imagine that you awoke tomorrow to a world without the Pirate Bay, without Demonoid, without Rapidshare-style file sharing, without Russian pirate sites, etc.  Would the former record stores of America suddenly regenerate Phoenix-like from the ground where they once stood, emerging once again fully staffed and stocked?  Would Best Buy suddenly have to halve their stock of cell phone accessories and re-expand their DVD assortment?  Would Tower Records signs suddenly hang over a world once again forced to pay full list price for physical product?  The answer, in all of these cases, is simple: of course not.

The reason is also simple: pirated or paid, most Americans have happily adapted to the convenience of digital delivery of their entertainment media.  And why not?  Less hassle, less space, less - or no, depending on your personal moral viewpoint - cost.  Format shifts have happened many times before in the past century or so: a moment of silence, if you will, for wax cylinders, 78 RPM acetates, reel-to-reel tapes, 8-tracks, Betamax, Laserdisc, VHS, video game cartridges, cassette tapes, mini discs, and god knows what else I'm not thinking of off the top of my head.  The only difference now is that this particular format shift was forced by the end consumer rather than engineered by the content providers.  As such, the latter are twisting in the wind trying to figure out how to monetize this shift in their favor, as they have with all the previous ones.  Remember re-buying all of your old VHS movies on DVD about ten years ago?  That must have been a nice little catalog-profit windfall for the studios, right?  You bet, and what's more it's now time for you, dear end consumer, to move into the wonderful world of Blu-Ray and streaming.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Of course, there's no reason to lather, rinse and repeat if there's no money to be made on the process, and that's where the excuse for SOPA comes in.  Were it to pass, I've no doubt that its first targets would be many of the ones I mentioned a paragraph back: goodbye Pirate Bay, Demonoid, et al.  With all of that out of the way, the fun would really begin: goodbye political opponents, pop stars signed to a different company, any sort of indie-label anything, and in one last, fantastic show of mutually assured destruction, all politically partisan thought from anywhere on the spectrum.  Lefties nuking righties and vice-versa in one big game of SOPA Space Invaders  until there is nothing left but silence and darkness where the internet, one of the greatest tools mankind has ever imagined for the exchange of information, used to be.

Talk about your blackouts.

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