Look back at any period of rapid technological progress and you’ll find two groups of individuals: Pioneers tirelessly charting new territory for the benefit of the species and members of the old order standing against the tide to fight back the phantom of their own perceived obsolescence. The debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act boils down to exactly this — a desperate last-ditch effort by the reigning Hollywood and recording industry elite to preserve their crumbling empires, no matter the cost to free speech, innovation and security.
It’s not the first time this has happened, and it certainly won’t be the last. Jump back a hundred or so years to one example famously cited by copyright law professor Lawrence Lessig, in which American march composer John Philip Sousa speaks out against a machine called the gramophone that played recorded music without the need of live musicians.
“When I was a boy…in front of every house in the summer evenings, you would find young people together singing the songs of the day or old songs,” Sousa said at a Congressional hearing in 1906. “Today you hear these infernal machines going night and day. We will not have a vocal cord left. The vocal cord will be eliminated by a process of evolution, as was the tail of man when he came from the ape.” Ironically, he was rallying against the very recording industry that went on to rally against recordable cassette tapes, and is currently rallying against the internet.
Like Sousa’s odd statement, SOPA’s overreaching and blunderous approach to combating online infringement of copyright is deeply mired in outdated ideas about the nature of technology and the economics of creative work. But it’s important to remember that the incumbent institutions pushing it forward simply don’t care. To them, the individual empowerment offered by ubiquitous computer networks is an obstacle that must either be shaped to their benefit, or destroyed outright. SOPA does a little bit of both.
But to the booming culture of internet startup businesses, arguably one of the only sectors of the American economy that isn’t hurting badly right now, the nature of the internet has generated a renaissance of networked creativity. Many web trailblazers, like Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler, see the conflict as the symptom of a generational disconnect between old media titans and internet age innovators. "It's people who grew up on the Web versus people who still don't use it," he wrote while explaining his views to David Carr in the New York Times. "In Washington, they simply don't see the way that the Web has completely reconfigured society across classes, education and race. The Internet isn't real to them yet."
But that’s not the whole story. If anything can be attributed to Old Media’s assault on the ‘net, it’s the fact that the new, democratic breed of business it generates has proven it can be successful without the help of the antiquated corporate power structure that came before it. Upstarts like Bandcamp, Kickstarter and Etsy have helped engineer a new kind of media and consumer landscape that rewards creative independence and circumvents traditional hierarchies. For incumbents like the RIAA, MPAA and Wal-mart, this simply will not do.
Race to the Finish
Since the last meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, there has been a sharp rise in the amount of hysteria surrounding the SOPA, particularly (and unsurprisingly) on the web. The panic is justified: Now that 2012 is here, SOPA’s markup will likely resume at breakneck speed. It would be humorous if the situation weren’t so dire — the old school corporate establishment and its Congressional patsies are rushing to keep pace with the very networks they’re lobbying against, and they have good reason to be frightened.
Massive boycotts of SOPA supporters like web registrar GoDaddy, which caused the company to reverse their position after a massive spike in outbound domain transfers, have shown the effectiveness of well-timed online outrage. Web giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook are even planning blackouts of their services in protest — a feat that’s sure to get the attention of countless citizens that have yet to be informed about the dangers the bill presents.
The bill’s corporate backers know they can’t hope to raise public sympathy as effectively as their internet-savvy opponents. But they can rush the the legislation forward by tapping their collective wallets. The long-running relationships and influence of the entertainment industry in American government completely outflank those of the internet industry. This is the pro-SOPA camp’s one major advantage, and it’s likely more than enough to slip the bill through before things get too hairy.
Whatever happens, the tale of SOPA remains a modern rendition of an old story. One can only hope we’ll one day look upon Hollywood’s objection to the uncensored internet as the same kind of endearing anachronism as Sousa’s objection to the gramophone.