What went wrong for SOPA, the entertainment industry’s proposal for stopping international piracy? And what does it mean for Hollywood’s future clout in Washington?
I had a ringside seat for the battle over SOPA, though not as a supporter. I thought it would make Internet users more vulnerable to cybercrime. That was a problem that could have been fixed. Instead, after a brief halt and some modest changes, the entertainment industry decided to press for a showdown.
And a showdown, of course, is what it got.
Why did it turn out so badly? The entertainment industry’s first mistake, then and now, is believing that its adversary is a group of other companies — Google, Internet service providers, and others — who are somehow hoping to profit from the Internet travails of the entertainment industry.
In fact, the industry is fighting what amounts to a new popular culture.
Unlike the old pop culture, this one is largely independent of the music, movie, and broadcast industries. In fact, people who spend hours on line instead of watching TV or going to movies will probably encounter the entertainment industry only when Youtube videos of their kids dancing to Prince or spoofing Star Wars are pulled down by Hollywood’s bots, or when the RIAA threatens to sue them for their college savings, or when digital rights software makes it hard to move their stuff to a new tablet or phone.
To the entertainment industry these episodes may seem like collateral damage in the fight to stop piracy. To the new pop culture, though, collateral damage and misuse of enforcement tools is everywhere, and it threatens everyone. The content industry has made itself into the villain. Increasingly it looks like an occupying power; obeyed at gunpoint, despised for its hamhanded excesses, and resisted from every dark corner. Unfortunately for the entertainment industry, as its customers migrate to the Internet, it loses not just their money but their hearts and minds as well.
The industry’s miscalculation about the source of the resistance to SOPA may have led to an even bigger mistake. As long as the campaign for better IP enforcement was an inside-the-beltway, company-versus-company struggle, it could be fought within the Congressional judiciary committees, where both Republican and Democratic politicians were wooed and won as individuals. As a result, strengthening intellectual property enforcement has been a bipartisan issue for the last 25 years. But when the fight went from the committees to the floor, and Wikipedia went dark, every member of Congress was expected to take a stand.
The two parties reacted very differently. Despite widespread opposition to SOPA from bloggers on the left, Democrats in Congress (and the Administration) were reluctant to oppose the bill outright. The MPAA was not shy about reminding them that Hollywood had been a reliable source of funding for Democratic candidates, and that it would not tolerate defections.
But that very public message also reached another audience: Tea Party conservatives. Most of them had never given a second’s thought to intellectual property enforcement before coming to town. But many had drawn support from conservative bloggers. They began to ask why they should vote against their Internet supporters to rescue an industry that was happily advertising how much it hated them. Pretty soon, far more Republicans than Democrats had bailed on SOPA, and the Republican presidential candidates had all come out for what they called “Internet freedom.”
That’s what really ought to worry the entertainment industry. For Republicans, opposition to new intellectual property enforcement is starting to look like a political winner. It pleases conservative bloggers, appeals to young swing voters, stokes the culture wars, and drives a wedge between two Democratic constituencies, Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
We’ve seen this movie before. Immigration reform and the DREAM Act, free trade agreements, and the USA PATRIOT Act all commanded impressive bipartisan support. For a while. Now, not so much. Bills on these topics still come to the floor, and they sometimes even pass, but only after endless partisan point-scoring and amendments driven by talk radio and mass email. The same could soon be true of intellectual property enforcement.
With SOPA, the entertainment industry pushed a generation of Republicans into choosing sides between Hollywood and the Internet.
They may never look back.
While I’m on the subject, talk about culture clash: I’ve written two SOPA op-eds, for Politico and Hollywood Reporter, and both have been put without notice behind paywalls. That’s never happened to me before, and it seems a little odd. Sure, it must sound good to the publishers, at least for a while. But they aren’t paying op-ed contributors in gobs of cash, or in massive circulation. They’re giving circulation to the contributors’ ideas. Or not, in the case of the paywalled publications.
Contributors who actually care about communicating to the public have to wonder why they should offer content to an outlet with such a policy. That only makes sense to contributors who have a strong reason to communicate just to the elite audience that pays to get these highly specialized publications — lobbyists or studio execs in the case of Politico and Hollywood Reporter. It makes sense, in other words, only to contributors who see their op-eds as an alternative form of targeted advertising.
Nothing wrong with that, either, except that it means the subscribers who pay for the publications have to read even the op-eds with their hands on their wallets, wondering, “Now why did he want me, and only me, to read that?” Ironically, then, in the long run the paywalled op-eds are less valuable than op-eds that appear for free.
UPDATE: The Hollywood Reporter assures me that the paywall is temporary — likely to last only a day or two while they’re promoting the new issue. So, uh, never mind. When the public link is available, I’ll add it.
UPDATE 2: Done.