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January 19, 2012

We are all pirates -- SOPA-inspired stories from 15 years of media analysis

by Josh Bernoff

PiratesWith 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.

Photo from OakleyOriginals via flickr -- used through Creative Commons license, of course!


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Augie Ray

My name is Augie, and I am a pirate. (Hi Augie!)

Brilliant post. As a (very amateur) musician, I've been vehemently against music pirating. People who download torrents talk about how much Gaga or Bono are making but forget the studio techs, instrument makers, PR flaks, and army of little people who count on consumers buying digital albums for $9.99.

But, I also copy portions of others' posts (with attribution), have shared copyrighted reports and have probably broken IP laws far more times than I would guess.

Still, I believe as a society we ought to allow people who create the content, data, music and images we enjoy to get benefit of it (or at the very least, control how it is shared.) I'm not naive and know we cannot put the worms back in the can, but I think a bit more IP protection would be a good thing. (SOPA was a LOT more than a "bit more" protection, unfortunately.)

Thanks for the post, Josh.


Agree with Augie that it's the right - and legal - thing to do to pay for content created by others. You pay for music, video and gasp...analyst reports. But as Josh notes, the creeping issue of simply posting someone else's graphic, photo, video or music into a blog or website becomes less clear cut. Does one attribute? Yes indeed. Does that mean one is not pirating content? And how is this different from traditional media reusing parts of another artist's song? What about art that uses commercial brands and images (that one is in court now). Tricky questions now that we can all access so much, for free, in seconds.

Larry Smith

20 years ago, the most successful Top 10 song might reach 100 million people globally (mostly by free radio play) and a small portion were made into illegal mix tapes. Now a song has an immediate reach of 1+ billion and even a small portion is a huge number, but not necessarily more than got it free in the past.

20 years ago, record companies bribed radio stations for air play and only distributed 1% of the potential musical content from available bands and performers. Today, any garage band with a computer, microphone and camera can self publish and gain access to that 1+ billion audience. Most of these smaller performers give away the copy and make money from their performance, bypassing distribution companies, and connecting direct.

Digital duplication and sharing is not always a mistake or piracy. Sometime it is what the artist/creator needs to be successful. And the leaky sieve is not lost revenue but non-customers who wouldn't buy anyway.

Martz Hobert

As long as their are narrow minded people in the Congress that doesn't know how information in the Internet runs, then there's no stop with this SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA issue.

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