January 13, 2012

SOPA is Just Bad Business

There’s been a lot of talk about sopa and it’s sister bill pipa lately. Both bills are designed to combat online privacy, effectively by giving the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and others a big broad sword with which to swing at ‘copyright pirates’. In reality, the bills will do little to stop real pirates and can do more harm to you and me.

Supporters of the bills argue that they will just target large sites, and not about censorship or going after small, personal websites that are using copyrighted material under the fair use act. But the companies that make up RIAA and MPAA haven’t shown much integrity on that front, nor have they particularly acted rationally. Let’s not forget the sony rootkit scandal where Sony was so concerned over their own profits that they stealthy installed a rogue program on all their customers’ personal computers – without said customers’ permission. The program (called a rootkit) monitored what each customer was doing on his or her own computer, and beaconed the information back to Sony so Sony could attempt to identify possible copyright theft. Not only was it an invasion of privacy, the rootkit had vulnerabilities that allowed hackers to gain access and control the customers’ computers. Sony put their customers’ privacy and personal data at risk with an ‘everyone is guilty until proven innocent’ mentality.

But there’s one area of SOPA that’s bad and I’m surprised no one is talking about it. SOPA reflects an old marketing thinking of ‘control your brand at all costs’, taking a draconian approach to even the most mild of infringes. The problem with this approach is it’s counterproductive online. In truth, the power of the internet is viral marketing, where a message is allowed to spread like wild fire, at little or no cost. By allowing fans to create fan fiction, or homage videos, you’re gaining free marketing that not only drums up fan interests, but helps companies reach a larger audience. The fact that these are fans and third parties, thus not affiliated with a company, spreading the companies allows corporations to easily distance themselves from any representation they think is unflattering to the brand while simultaneously profiting from positive buzz.

In fact, companies being heavy handed with fans over derivative works has caused numerous fan backlashes, such as the Mad Men case where AMC went after fake twitter accounts designed in homage to fan’s favorite characters. In contrast, 2 consumers created a fan page on facebook for coca cola, which became the second most popular fan page, a technical violation of the facebook terms of service which says only the company can create a fan page. Coca-Cola instead thanked the consumers for their hard work and devotion. Under the new bill trademark infringements, not only could twitter and facebook face being taken down, but there could be possible jail time for the fans responsible in these homage works. Whether you’re paying homage to a Coca-Cola or an AMC is the luck of the draw.

The problem is the RIAA and MPAA in particular have no strategy for the online world, and have been resisting change. They assume down sales are due to pirates and not a changing market or changing consumer desire. They fight with netflix and resisted Apple’s micro-payment model as long as possible. Yes, piracy is bad and should be stopped, but until the attitude that any-paying-customer-is-a-potential-copyright-thief-or-trade-mark-infringer changes, I can’t get behind stronger copyright bills that give them unlimited power with no form of recourse to decide what is and is not a copyright violation. We’ve come along way in the past thirty years. There are many new forms of entertainment out there: smart phones, personal computers, e-readers, etc. The world is moving away from the days of vast CD and DVD collections, in favor of digital media and streaming. It’s time for the RIAA and MPAA to adapt, not dig their heels in further. The world has changed, and those that are unwilling to bend often brake.

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