Why SOPA Won't Work: We Are All Pirates, Copyright Holders Included

Copyright Violations, Large and Small, Are Part of Life

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With SOPA blackouts all over the news, I wanted to take a step back and ask: do we know what piracy is ? Sounds like a simple question, but here are a few stories that show just how confused people are.

In the 2000s, I wrote a Forrester report about file sharing. Our reports are available to paying clients or for a fee. But we share the reports with the people we interview as a courtesy. Among the people I interviewed was one at a prominent media-company lobbying organization that represents copyright owners -- one of the very organizations that is right now pushing SOPA and ridiculing the opposition. So when the report was done, I contacted the staffer at the organization to send him a copy of the report. "Don't bother," he said, "We already have a copy." "How did you get it?" I asked. "One of our member companies, a movie studio, had a copy and they emailed it to us."

I had to point out that our reports are copyrighted content and cannot be shared indiscriminately. Slowly, the staffer realized that he had revealed something embarrassing -- that to his organization, movies or music were worthy of protecting but Forrester's report, since it was just print, didn't seem to require the same protection. There was no further comment from him or his company. And there was no apology, either.

In 2003 I interviewed an executive at LimeWire (since shut down), a company that produced file-sharing systems used by many to trade copyrighted music, obviously mostly without permission. LimeWire was free, but made some of its revenue by selling a premium version. Waggishly, I asked "Are there any copies of the files for LimeWire's premium software on your file-sharing service?" Suddenly, he became shocked. Creating software is a lot of work, he explained, and the results are valuable -- sharing it this way would be very wrong. I pointed out the hypocrisy of his position, he couldn't see it. When we published what he said in the report, he again objected to my telling the story and sent me a blistering email in protest.

Attitudes vary. A friend of mine gave me a gift of a hard drive full of pirated music and movies from Bittorrent -- obviously he didn't see a problem with it. (I have never used it.) I also have a 12-year-old son who regularly creates YouTube videos and watches them. Once I explained that music was subject to copyright and using it without permission was stealing, he removed copyright music from his videos and started asking a lot of reasonable but very difficult-to-answer questions. He is attempting very carefully to do the right thing, but the online world he lives in exists because people don't obey the rules.

What have I learned?

Digital piracy is frictionless and nearly riskless. We all do it. And all of us who create content are victims. Go ahead, comment on this blog if you never do it. Never share a copyright article. Uh huh. I thought so.

We all value our own content more highly than content from others --that 's clear from the stories I've heard.

Here's the difference between fair use and a copyright violation: When I use your content it's fair use. When you use mine, it's a copyright violation.

Whatever you can say about SOPA, it is an attempt to give copyright owners tools to interfere with copyright violators, tools that are easier to use than lawsuits.

Since we all violate copyrights, there are far more violators than copyright owners. All those users rose up yesterday, goaded on by the companies and organizations that have built their popularity on frictionless digital activity, like Google and Wikipedia. Their awareness tactics worked brilliantly and will water down SOPA or kill it.

The forces behind SOPA want to create friction. The people who consume Internet content -- all billion of us -- hate friction. And we're scared about giving the power to create that friction to people who may make arbitrary decisions.

Interactive marketers aren't the only ones who'll suffer if SOPA passes. Copyright owners: I think you're going to have to find another way.

Josh Bernoff is senior vice president, idea development at Forrester Research and the co-author of "Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your Business," a management book that teaches you how to transform your business by empowering employees to solve customer problems. He blogs at blogs.forrester.com/groundswell.
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