SOPA/PIPA Two: Electric Boogaloo
I love the discussions that are coming up from SOPA/PIPA. It has my writing juices flowing again so I am happy about that. If you haven’t read my first post about SOPA you can find it here. My first post was about the argument that the whole SOPA/PIPA effort destroys free speech on the internet. In this post I will discuss what I believe is at the core of the issue and where we are headed from here.
I actually don’t support the issues as they stand so let me get that out of the way, but I don’t think they are far off from where they need to be. But I also take issue with all of the video’s and reasons I see posted for shutting the bill down. The majority of those statements are very shallow and simply say “I stand for a free internet”. Other videos paint a picture of worst case scenarios where everybody is getting sued and big evil corporations are pulling the plug on competing legitimate web sites even going so far as to squash the little guys who are trying to start new businesses. I don’t think that is the intent of the bill or is that at the core of why big companies want something like this bill in place. At least it shouldn’t be.
I see the need for action in protecting digital media. I also realize under the current bill you could just type the ip address for sites that are “blocked” but actually still online. But the battle against piracy isn’t about stopping it completely. That is impossible. Just like fighting other “crime” like drug trafficking can’t be completely stopped. It is about making it very inconvenient to do so. That keeps the majority of people that are in the grey area about stealing digital content from actually doing so. If the effort is high and the price to just buy it legally is reasonable that is the ideal scenario. When pirate sites are right in your face the company loses control in how its content is being offered. That is the landscape right now on the internet. Pirate sites are in your face. A lot of them even look legit. It creates a lot of confusion for your average consumer.
Hollywood and the music biz are the big guns behind this effort. They are scared because they know their physical product is going away and their traditional revenue models don’t hold up in the digital only world. They don’t always have the best ideas to solve the problem, but the problem is real to them, and it actually affects the little guys just as much. It also affects the consumer. It affects everybody. You have to look down the road and see what will happen to the actual content and decide if we are happy with that direction we are going.
Current revenue models are based largely on sales of physical media. In the music biz certain people are paid based on sales of physical cd’s, some are paid based on radio air play, some are paid from live gigs, some are paid from all of it. There is a complex system of who gets paid for what. The same holds true for Hollywood, the book world, the video game world, and the art world. Most of these revenue models break down in the digital only world. And we will be in a digital only world soon. The big companies are already feeling the sting of the shift in consumer preferences from physical media to digital only. People are not buying cd’s, books, dvd’s, game on disc like they were a few years ago. The book industry is going through the biggest shift right now with the rise of the e-books. People don’t want to buy printed material anymore. Book stores are disappearing. I understand. I have a big bookcase full of heavy books I won’t be reading again anytime soon. Having all of this content in physical form takes up a lot of space and just isn’t as convenient anymore when the majority of people are carrying around smart devices. So all of this content is going digital only, I think we can all agree on that.
Here is the problem. Once a company loses control of its content by removing the physical aspect from it they also lose control of their ability to monetize it. The old revenue models are completely broken. What most companies want to do is just offer the same content in digital only form from their stores or some other site they have authorized. The problem is the content is now very easy to pirate. It becomes hosted everywhere. That is the reason for these bills. They are quickly losing control of where the content is and losing the ability to collect any money from sales. It is out there in the free, open internet and you can’t get it back.
A lot of people argue that giving stuff away for free actually increases your business. It gives people a taste for what you are offering. If they like it they will buy your other products. That works for some companies right now, but it may not work in the next five years. Right now you still have a mix of digital only and physical media being produced and sold. If I like your e-book that you put out for free I can buy a physical book or buy another e-book. I can also limit my content by keeping certain products on physical media only. If I like your free song I can buy your cd. But once it is all online and all available by some means for free consumers will buy less and less. And I actually believe consumers will become conditioned to not feel the need to pay for content at all. Piracy also compounds the problem because you may not realize you are downloading something for free that was not intended to be free by its creator. People will be satisfied enjoying the free song only, the first level of the free game, etc. There is already so much content that you can spend all of your time enjoying the free stuff and your time is full. I can play the first level of a game while I am waiting somewhere for 5-10 minutes, enjoy it, delete it, and download something else next. I think a lot of consumers already fall in this category. Now you may think this is a different issue, but I say they are related. The lines become blurry when you are getting that free content from somewhere the company has no control over. Getting it for free from the company’s website where they have the chance to sell you an additional product or show you some online ad is different from getting it from a site where they can’t monetize it like a pirated site or some other non authorized location.
We are already seeing what this shift in consumer behavior and lack of control is doing to our digital content. A lot of mobile games are now going free with either in app purchases or (gasp) in game advertising. In game advertising is the worst offender to me because it ruins the game experience by putting random ads in your face while you are playing. The sad thing is people are becoming conditioned to ignore the ads and be ok with it. So the game experience goes down and the ads don’t work anyway. This is a direct reaction to both piracy and the “I only download free stuff” mentality of the new consumer.
We are also seeing a similar trend at opening new revenue streams in tv and movies. TV shows are now just putting more and more ads and product placement in the shows thus diminishing the artist component of the content in an attempt to have a way to generate money. The same is going on in movies. We are even getting pop up ads in YouTube videos now. The classic scene in Wayne’s World where they have the product placement may become a standard practice in movies in a few years.
Now the music industry is just screwed. You really can’t put an ad in the middle of a song can you? They will have to come up with something or those big publishers may just go under. Of course there are a lot of people who will argue those old dinosaur publishers are not needed in this day anyway, but that is a topic for another day. Even if you take the publishers out of the mix the artist and songwriters can still lose in a big way.
I don’t like ads in tv shows and movies. It all seems underhanded. I don’t mind watching them before the movie, but keep them out of the actual content. Book publishers may be forced to do the same thing putting ads in the actual text of the book. A novel like Moby Dick will end up looking like an issue of Cosmopolitan. This won’t really work anyway and a lot of companies that create content will go under.
So what does any of this have to do with SOPA/PIPA? Did I just get way off topic? Well I think it has everything to do with those bills. The bottom line is companies want to maintain control of their digital media. They want to be able to market, set prices, have sales, offer things for free on their terms when it comes to content they created. They have to be able to maintain some control in order to stay in business. Piracy does hurt those companies. The actual affect of piracy is difficult to measure, but the bottom line is real. Companies are losing money in a big way and entertainment as we know it is going to change drastically. When a company can’t control where the content is offered to the consumer they lose money.
I will give another example. I was at a users’ group meeting for recording engineers last night and there was an interesting topic that came up. For those that don’t know I live in Nashville and there is a lot of music industry here. It is called Music City after all. A side topic came up discussing how music publishers are not valuing their craft of mastering songs like they used to. They are no longer willing to pay the prices to get a song mixed well. They just want something mixed cheaply and loud. And these guys I meet are amazing at what they do. The before and after on some of those tracks are night and day. But the quality even on the mixing is quickly going down the toilet due to money constraints and consumer trends. They also had many stories of sending a mix to a publisher for approval and they listen to it on their phone and say things like it needs to be louder or it needs more bass. You can’t really mix a song by listening to it through an iPhone speaker, but that is effectively what is going on now. It is all about doing it cheap. These companies are losing money and it trickles down into every aspect of the creation process. We end up with inferior products all around.
While SOPA and PIPA are effectively beaten for now I believe we will see it again under a different name and backed by a big dollar campaign. Anti-piracy measures have been in place by these companies to protect their content on physical media for a long time. This is just a logical extension to give them protection as they prepare to go to all digital formats. These companies need protection and so far the “internet” community has failed to offer any help. In fact as a whole the internet community is condemning them for wanting to control the content they spent time and money creating. The companies probably didn’t expect this kind of reaction from the public, but they will push it again, and I bet you will see celebrities and the like endorse it this time. It actually affects everybody from the content creators to the consumers. I for one am ok with companies retaining control of their property so they can get paid for their works. Then I can continue to enjoy music, movies, books, and games of high quality instead of the witnessing the decline of our entertainment industry.