The Changing World of Media Distribution and Copyright Law

The past few months have seen a few hastily written copyright protection laws being drafted, nearly passed and then abandoned after massive public outcry in both Europe and the USA. These bills were SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) in the USA and ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) in Europe. SOPA and PIPA have effectively been abandoned, and ACTA has been put on the back burner while European lawmakers review it to make sure it is constitutional and does not violate any fundamental human rights.

All of these bills were drafted with the apparent goal of reducing online piracy in order to protect the revenue streams of the music, film and television industries in an era when media is essentially just another form of data which can be copied, pasted, shared and manipulated by anybody with some sort of computer. This seems like a relatively good cause, so why has it upset so many people? On 18 January 2012, something amazing happened. Websites everywhere blacked out their pages in protest against SOPA. The effect was chilling, to say the least. While we may not have seen much of it in Europe, in the USA people woke up to find that the Google logo had been replaced by a black censorship mark, Wikipedia had disappeared completely and the popular forum Reddit had closed its doors.

This was not just a protest by a few disenfranchised hippies outside a bank. Wikipedia had actually shut down completely. The world’s biggest repository of free knowledge had disappeared for the day, like some modern-day fire in the library of Alexandria. The true meaning of SOPA had been shown to the public. Any law that would give one nation the power to control the entire Internet – to block or remove sites at a moment’s notice without due process, courts or discussion, just instant disconnection – deserves scrutiny.

The motivations for draconian internet laws are questionable. While piracy is a massive concern, it is not an impossible problem to solve. Gabe Newell, founder of game development and distribution company Valve Software is often quoted on this subject. Gabe very famously said in an interview that piracy is not a legal issue, it’s a service issue. People pirate media because it’s convenient. Valve software beats piracy by doing one thing: they offer a better service than the pirates. They were the first company to offer a good digital download service for games. It is so good, in fact, that they are even turning a huge profit in Russia, which is essentially the software piracy capital of the world. One can’t help but think that big media are missing a trick here.

In a debate about SOPA between NBC and Universal executive Rick Cotton and Internet mogul Alexis Ohanion, the service issue point was brought up by Ohanion. Cotton pointed out that the TV and film industries have tried to provide a better service by introducing systems like in the USA and iPlayer/4OD in the UK, but these services have still not curbed piracy. In my opinion as an IT professional, the reason these services have failed can be summed up with one line: “The content you wish to view is unavailable in your area.” Anyone who has been on YouTube for more than five minutes will be familiar with this phrase.

Despite their best attempts, big media have not been able to provide a better service than pirates because they have failed to see one part of the big picture: We are no longer separated by international boundaries. The internet transcends traditional distribution boundaries, and big media has not updated their distribution mechanisms to fit in with the information age. If a friend in the USA recommends I watch a new TV series, I don’t want to wait a year before it becomes “available in my location”; no, I want to watch it today so that I can discuss it with him on Facebook or Skype later tonight.

The world is changing, and we shouldn’t punish people who are swimming with the change. A great example of this is the case of Richard O’Dwyer, the 23-year-old student and operator of TV Shack, who now faces extradition to the United States for the crime of linking to copyrighted files. TV Shack was a site which linked to streaming versions of popular films and television series. Linking to pirated media is of course in the eyes of the law not a commendable thing to do as it is essentially facilitating theft. However, one must wonder why TV Shack was such a hit with the general public and if O’Dwyer is indeed a criminal deserving extradition or simply a young entrepreneur who filled a very large gap in the market by providing the public with a way of watching the content they wanted and a way for them to share that content with each other as well as rate it and review it. The only way he could afford to fill that gap was essentially piracy because there is no way a solitary 23-year-old student could afford to cut licensing deals with the moguls of big media.

Piracy is an issue that needs to be sorted out, but we need to make sure it is done the right way. One cannot help but think that if all the money the big media companies spent on lobbying governments to change laws was put into changing their licensing models and finding more effective online distribution mechanisms, the problem may have been turned into a profit years ago.