PIPA, Pirates, Profit, and Pop Culture

Before I got a design degree in strategic foresight and innovation, I got my first Master’s with a thesis on Japanese animation, cyborg theory, and fan culture. The connection between these two degrees? Their focus on technology, early adopters, and the changing face of copyright. During my first grad school stint, I was considered a little unusual for running a seminar at LiveJournal, reviewing essays on fanfiction and fair use. During my second, my classmates picked my brain about Henry Jenkins as we worked with TIFF and Corus. I used those experiences to work on a project about the future of media. So when I talk about SOPA, PIPA, and piracy, that’s where I’m coming from.

On January 18th, this blog went dark. My reasons were much the same those shared by others: the folks at Making Light make a compelling case that I suggest you read. The strike was epic in scope and scale, and resulted in indefinite shelving of the proposed legislation. It was an unprecedented act of protest that forced Big Content to retreat and transform like the penultimate boss in a Final Fantasy game.

In the days that followed, I heard a lot of complaints from people abandoned at the intersection of Media and Technology, invigorated by the passion with which bloggers protested the bill while lamenting the lost profits continued piracy would mean. The debate has been framed as “Silicon Valley vs. Hollywood,” in none other than the New York Times:

“The grass roots they can generate is, frankly, concerning,” Cary Sherman, chairman and chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, said of the Internet community.

Sherman’s “concerns” aren’t misplaced, but they’re comically overdue. At what point was the Internet not of concern to the RIAA? Was it in 1999, when Parker and the Fannings fired up Napster? Was it in 2001, when Apple introduced iTunes? Was it in 2003, when Netflix first turned a profit — in the millions? Was it in 2007, when a Los Angeles FOX affiliate reported on Anonymous? Was it in 2008, when Barack Obama won the election thanks in part to online support and contributions? At any point during the first decade of the twenty-first century, did the RIAA stop to consider that the Internet might just be bigger than the hapless targets of infringement suits and the legislators who could be bought? That maybe, just maybe, it was an ecosystem, complete with swarms and schools and murders that wouldn’t take too kindly to their habitat being threatened?

It’s 2012. The time for concern is past. The time for strategy is now. My strategy would unfold thus:

Plug the leaks. Finished films and albums (or blu-ray files) that appear on torrents don’t just sprout up out of nowhere. They come from the Hollywood supply chain — the people who work with the media files themselves before they’re made available commercially. Film studios pirate movies, too. The industry should clean its own house before clamping down on the infrastructure of the Internet.

Stop mourning the past, and start innovating for the future. The entertainment industry has known for years that their audiences wanted content on demand, their way. They’ve known it since fans started bootlegging concerts. They’ve known it since fans started recording television shows. They’ve known it since fans started translating and subtitling shows from other countries. In short, they’ve known it since the 70’s. The pattern of audience consumption has always been there, for early-adopters and true believers. But the Internet made everybody a true believer, and what did the RIAA and MPAA do? They plugged their ears and hoped it would go away, and when it didn’t, they pushed increasingly-bizarre legislation on a public who, for the most part, just wanted to check their email.

“It’s ultimately about disruptive and disintermediating technologies versus incumbent industry,” said Michael H. Rubin, a lawyer who has represented several large Internet companies in copyright cases. Incumbent industries, he said, chose “litigation and legislation over innovation.”

This is part of why the anime and manga industries are doing so badly in North America. For years, fans were interested in the legal, commercial importation of Japanese programming. This was in the 1980s, when distribution channels involved tiny Japanese grocery stores and VHS tapes. But the fans wanted product, and it wasn’t until the next decade that they got it — years after they had already created their own distribution channels and their own habits of sharing content. Roland Kelts discusses this at length in Japanamerica, and I suggest you read it. But for a shortened version, check out Brian Ruh’s thoughts on SOPA, Netflix, and the future of anime in America.

The pirates aren’t a threat to the entertainment industry because they’re big, or scary, or they encourage bad behaviour. They’re not fundamentally opposed to truth, justice, or the American Way. The American Way is competition, and the pirates are nothing but. They do Big Content’s job better, faster, and above all, cheaper. They had fansubs long before Bandai. They had streaming before Hulu. And while Big Content was busy investing in lawyers and lobbyists and branding, they forgot the people who put them on top in the first place: the fans.

Fans know their own power. They love to congregate and communicate. That’s how they build networks so quickly. They’re building for their own use. Once upon a time, they were the audience. Now, they’re something else altogether.

The people formerly known as the audience are those who were on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, with high entry fees and a few firms competing to speak very loudly while the rest of the population listened in isolation from one another— and who today are not in a situation like that at all.

Those words were written in 2006.

At the very least, the entertainment industry should fire Chris Dodd and all his ilk. The entertainment lobby is doing a terrible job of communicating the interests of artists. (They’re certainly not working very hard for the artists who have spoken out against censorship.) And they’re not doing the current discourse any favours. They’re not winning friends at Google, or doing anything to assuage the fears of Jimmy Wales. Their legislation has failed. Isn’t it time for a new bullpen?

Isn’t it time for a new strategy?

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