I’m not blacking out my website.
Color me jaded, cynical, or whatever adjective you choose—if it’s a synonym of that general sort, it’s almost certainly correct—but I just don’t have much—no, any—faith in the effectiveness of boycotts or protests. That’s part of the reason why I’m not taking part in this. I’m not going to try to convince anyone else not to shut down their site in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), however. To each his own.
The other part of my decision not to black my site out is that, while I am absolutely against SOPA/PIPA (the Protect IP Act), I don’t particularly regard the Silicon Valley side of this as snow white and sparkly clean either, and I don’t do “solidarity” with a group that I regard as partially to blame for the very thing they are organized against.
Why do I say that? Primarily, there are two reasons: Large, legitimate online retailers that turn a blind eye to piracy under their own roofs (so to speak), and the relentless push of the Internet lobby for digital-only media.
Without naming names, let me just say that there are two rather large and well-known websites that let private individuals sell items, including movies and music CDs, over their domain name, and these sites take a certain percentage of every sale that these users make. These sites do have a ratings-based system whereby users can downrate people who deal in pirated materials (or otherwise are unsatisfactory), and they can revoke seller accounts, but you see the problem, I am sure. This system requires that some people spend money on pirated materials before this fact can be known to the broader user base. Although they take a cut out of the sale, these sites do not guarantee purchases made by private users from private users. On one hand, it is understandable; it would, after all, be very easy for somebody to make a purchase of legitimate material, pirate a DVD themselves, and then claim that it came from the private seller, and there would be no way to prove otherwise. But the fact remains that if (for some reason) you want a collection of pirated DVDs, the best websites to get them from are based right in the U.S.A., and the companies cannot be unaware of this fact. This makes me seriously question if the websites to which I am referring have other motives for opposing SOPA/PIPA than merely opposition to censorship. (Told you I was cynical.)
The other issue is a more subtle one, and it’s one I haven’t seen addressed at great length anywhere. I have deep misgivings about the push for everything—movies, music, and books—to be shifted over to digital-only format and for the physical items to be phased out. This is one thing that the Internet lobby has been pushing for ever since the Napster era, claiming that “big media hasn’t kept pace with changes in the marketplace” represented by the Internet and digital media, and now that we’re arriving at that very destination with piracy unabated, I lay the blame squarely in their lap.
The biggest problem with digital-only media is that it creates a one-way, top-down marketplace. For movies and e-books, if you buy something, that’s it. It’s yours. You can’t resell it. If you had bought that book or movie (or CD) in a physical format, you could turn around and sell it to someone else who might like it better, or to a resale store, and everyone wins. You get the money back that you spent, somebody else gets the product they wanted, and unless it is a direct transaction, another business benefits from the sale as well, which helps the broader economy. In an e-edition-only marketplace, there are only a few legitimate retailers from which to buy media, and it’s very difficult for a new business to become licensed and compete with these giants. Consumers are eternally consumers; they cannot become sellers themselves. This is what the Internet lobby has pushed upon us by promoting digital media not as an adjunct, but to the exclusion of physical media, and pushing the idea that physical media of all varieties are hopelessly obsolete. It was a fine idea for music; music albums are collections of individual, distinct items that usually stand on their own. People wanted to buy songs individually, and now they can. They didn’t particularly care about the CD itself, and they also didn’t particularly care about whether the song was played on a stereo system or a computer as long as the sound was good. However, movies and most books are not collections of disparate items. They are unified pieces of work. Unlike music, they are engrossing; it’s not easy to do other things while reading a book or (especially) watching a movie. And there is a natural way to watch a movie or read a book, and it does not involve a computer. (Not saying it can’t or shouldn’t be done on a computer, of course, just that this isn’t the natural way to do it, especially for movies where a family or group of friends all view it together.) But there has been no distinction made between the way albums, as opposed to books and movies, are created and used, and practically no recognition of the fact that what works for one (digital-only sales) may not work so well for the others.
Incidentally, problem 1 and problem 2 end up feeding upon each other. When trust in third-party sellers is undermined because large websites do not properly police the users whose sales they profit from, people are not going to want to buy from private individuals or small shops through these venues. They’ll buy certain types of products (particularly DVDs, Blu-Rays, and CDs) only from the “official” retailer itself rather than risk spending money on a pirated copy. I know this is true for me, and I can vouch for another person in my family who has said the same. And I can understand how many people would become impatient, and rather than waiting for the movie to arrive in the mail, would simply purchase a digital copy instead. And I also rather suspect that some people would simply download a pirated digital movie instead of buying anything at all.
That’s why, while I do indeed oppose SOPA/PIPA, I am not going to turn a blind eye to the sins of the Internet lobby that is also on that side. Now, what about the other side? Surely you didn’t think I would let them off scot-free.
There is no doubt in my mind that the entertainment industry would love to have sole control over sales of their products, completely eliminating middlemen and resales. After all, if you buy a movie, don’t care for it, and resell it to a friend, then that’s one net purchase from the viewpoint of Hollywood. If you and your friend bought digital copies because you couldn’t sell yours, that’s two net purchases. The entertainment industry’s numbers alleging enormous losses to piracy are quite questionable (they assume that everyone who pirates something automatically would have bought it if pirating hadn’t been an option, which is absolutely false), but I don’t think it’s because they don’t know how to do math. While the large websites that I was alluding to above benefit financially from piracy by taking a cut of all sales (including of pirated materials) made through their servers, Hollywood would probably want even legitimate resales of material eliminated. I’m sure they’d want to have total control over sales. Anyone who thinks that just because they are business, they are in favor of “the free market,” needs a reality check. They are in favor of their own bottom line. They are not in favor of competition. It’s against their self-interest. They are in the “contest.”
And finally, I think a good case could be made that certain kinds of activity that are technically piracy—oh, yes—benefit sales of movies and music, and the entertainment industry would do well to take advantage of this. I doubt this applies to the people who steal torrents of full DVDs, but it is highly plausible that, after enjoying watching a movie or listening to a song that was uploaded to YouTube (you know you’ve done it), a person would want to go out and buy a perfect, high-quality, complete copy of it. I certainly would; in fact, I’d regard it as an obligation to support the people responsible for the piece of art. I’m a writer. I thoroughly understand and agree with the right of creative individuals to be compensated for their work. However, people like to know what they are buying, and that must be considered too. I produce creative work, but if I had a published manuscript, I’d also be involved in the business of selling it (through the publisher), and with a business decision comes the need to consider what your buyers want. If they want to know what they’re buying and won’t buy it unless they have the opportunity, the logical thing to do from a business standpoint is to let them try it out. Would our hypothetical movie-streaming person have made the purchase if he or she had not found that “rip” online and liked it? Sometimes yes, if there were recommendations given from sources that he trusted, but not always. (The notion that he always would have, as I said earlier, is the big fallacy in the entertainment industry’s accounting for the costs of piracy.) When people go shopping for clothes, they often like to try them on and see how they look before they make the purchase. When people buy cars, they do a test drive first. In bookstores, people can sit and even read the whole book (if they have time) before buying it! Of course, the “try before you buy” analogy isn’t true for every type of product, but those products for which it is not true usually are either returnable (such as things like tools) or perishable (food) anyway.
Wait, you might say; that’s what Netflix et al. do! That’s what Amazon Prime does! And you’re right. You will also note that these companies have been runaway successes. (It’s also worth noting, however, that for books, a completely free method of “trying before buying” is available: a library.) If sites such as YouTube (which is owned by Google, hardly a struggling little company) also had a partnership with the entertainment industry whereby they could stream movies at comparatively low quality legally and through a protocol that did not allow for video files to be downloaded via browser plugins, I bet it’d do spectacularly. In point of fact, this is done for music; a great many artists have official YouTube pages where their music videos, concert performances, and sometimes even whole albums are streamed over YouTube at no cost to the end user. For movies, make it ad-supported; TV channels stick commercials in movies they show, after all. Watermark them, for that matter. Encrypt them so that the commercials cannot be edited out. These are just a few ideas off the top of my head for making a system like this work, and these measures need not affect the videos on these sites that truly are user-created original work. Those could stay as they are. Though I have said I disagree with the push to make media sales digital-only, I concede that the web lobby does have a legitimate point that the entertainment industry needs to keep pace with Internet technology. This would essentially set up a web-based system strikingly similar to cable/satellite TV showings of movies over hundreds of channels, though augmented, as users could choose from a much broader catalog online. If they liked a movie, they could then go and buy a proper copy uninterrupted by commercials.
It’s very easy, especially in this day of black and white thinking, to take a side on an issue like this and regard everything your chosen side says and does as absolutely Right, both factually and morally. It’s also very easy to take a simple step such as putting up a black page, redirecting your whole website to it, and calling this a protest. It’s not so easy to think long and hard about the issue and all those who have stakes in it.