The Stop Online Piracy Act: A Byproduct of the Communications Industry’s Fear of Change

Piracy

By. James Conrad

Throughout 2011, there was much talk of two interconnected pieces of legislation that struck terror in the hearts of internet users in theUnited States. The Protect Intellectual Property Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act materialized from software, record, television and film companies’ appeals to the government to protect the songs, films, games and television shows to which they owned the respective copyrights. People spoke, shaking with fear down to their socks, of facing stiff jail sentences if they were caught uploading Michael Jackson videos or downloading the entire back catalog of Beatles albums. Another worrisome ramification was that websites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube would be held liable if copyrighted content was displayed on these websites. There was grave and genuine concern that the internet would be badly kneecapped and cloud communication would enter its Dark Ages.

Controlling the means of production of audio and video recordings has been a challenge perhaps since the advent of radio in the 1920s. Because tuning into a station to hear your favorite song has always been free as long as you could afford, had access to, or were within earshot of a radio, representatives from the record industry worried that people would stop buying 78 rpm discs. Thirty years later, broadcast television stations that provided a free service were afraid that they would be put out of business by cable television, which boasted better sound and picture quality, and was not free. In the 1970s, Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant, a three hundred pound ex-wrestler who stood over six feet tall, would routinely terrorize record store owners that sold unauthorized recordings of Led Zeppelin concerts with threats (and sometimes acts) of physical violence, spurred on by a primal desire to protect his act from losing a penny in royalties. Led Zeppelin probably did not have to worry that much, considering that they achieved the feat of having their entire discography in the Billboard album charts twice. It also was doubtless that such innovations in packaging as the spinning wheel within the front cover of Led Zeppelin III; the windows cut out of the front of Physical Graffiti and the half-dozen different sleeve designs for In Through The Out Door wrapped in brown paper purely in the interest of keeping record buyers from knowing which cover they would be getting not only helped ensure that a Led Zeppelin album would sell bucketloads, it also created a collector’s market that still continues to this day. On the other hand, the Grateful Dead encouraged their fans to record their shows and swap the tapes, even setting up designated seating sections at their concerts for fans with top-of-the-line sound equipment to get the best possible acoustic angle. Perhaps this measure came as the result of the mutual understanding between band and fanbase that the Grateful Dead, for all its musical competency and quality albums like Workingman’s Dead, American Beauty and Wake of of the Flood, could never capture the inimitable energy and spontaneity of its concerts in the studio. Deep Purple, being hip to the often muddy and scratchy sound quality of most bootlegs, began offering quality recordings of memorable performances in 1972 with their best-selling live album Made In Japan. At the time of the album’s release, bass player Roger Glover remarked optimistically that “a live album should kill the bootlegger’s market.”

Throughout the 1970s, the motion picture industry was deathly afraid of the advent of the videocassette recorder, believing this innovation would kill people’s desire to attend the cinema. But because the people began buying copies of their favorite movies to watch in the comfort of their own home like hotcakes, the bank balances of the motion picture companies increased exponentially. It also provided a financial buffer for films that stiffed at the box office. For example, cult classic comedies like Slap Shot, Clue and Office Space eventually found success through video sales and rentals, despite taking a loss at theaters.

By the turn of the millennium, between the price of CDs averaging roughly fifteen to twenty dollars a unit; the general homogenized quality of Top 40 songs that had been on the rise since the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain and the advent of person-to-person file sharing services like Napster and Kazaa, a tug-of-war ensued between the suits in the boardrooms, the artists and the fans. Metallica sued Napster in court, whereas in 2003, singer Bruce Dickinson would announce from the stage of an Iron Maiden concert, “This next song is from our upcoming album Dance of Death! You can download it, record it on your cell phone, burn CDs of it, whatever you want! Share it with your friends, too! All of them! I don’t give a s— as long as people get to hear it!” It should also be noted that Dickinson made many snide digs at Metallica’s expense from the stages of many an Iron Maiden concert, ostensibly in response to Metallica’s hard-and-fast anti-piracy stance. Not surprisingly, Metallica doubly became the object of much public vilification. For one thing, the fans found the negative reaction to internet file sharing hypocritical, considering that Metallica established its early fanbase through the copying and trading of demo tapes throughout the thrash metal community and would not have gotten a record deal had they not allowed their 1981 demo No Life Til Leather to be circulated gratis. For another, it is a common sentiment among Metallica fans that since the 1986 death of bass player Cliff Burton in a tour bus accident, something has always been amiss in Metallica’s music and after the 1991 release of their self-titled Black Album, many listeners began to observe –  correctly – that the music quite frankly started to suck. As for Iron Maiden, although people did share tracks from their albums perDickinson’s advice, Iron Maiden albums charting in the Top 40 upon release practically became a custom throughout the new millennium while the band routinely played to sold-out crowds worldwide.

But Maiden’s success did not alleviate the woes of the record industry. Album sales began to dwindle as a whole, forcing companies to merge or fold. Some blamed the advent of file sharing, while others very righteously chastised the record companies for overcharging for compact discs and flooding the market with unmemorable, disposable, mediocre drek. “I remember in the seventies the big ad campaign was ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music,’” recalled U2 frontman Bono. “Now they’re saying downloading songs is killing music. Actually, crap music is killing music.”

Many artists and fans, however, welcomed the change. Radiohead offered its album In Rainbows on the internet, telling their fans to make them an offer. Companies like Apple and Rhapsody began the practice of selling and marketing MP3 downloads, making sure to give a cut of the profits to the artist. Many bands looked upon the chaos in the record industry in the wake of rampant file sharing as an opportunity to make their money the old fashioned way – through concert tours.

The heated debates over internet piracy came to a head when SOPA was introduced. Outcry against it came from web companies, actors, filmmakers, musicians and politicians alike. The representatives from the film and recording industry argued that legislation was needed to prevent piracy. It was blatant that these companies were very much concerned with guarding their short term profits and had nary a care that the legislation would do pandemic and irrevocable collateral damage to numerous other businesses, web-based and otherwise, and very certainly deliver a lethal blow to the economy, all because of a pathological fear within the industry of new technologies. Steve Blank, who blogs about business and technology, observed that “The introduction of new technology is always disruptive to existing markets, particularly to content/copyright owners whose sell through well-established distribution channels. The incumbents tend to have short-sighted goals and often fail to recognize that more money can be made on new platforms and new distribution channels…What the music and movie industry should be doing in Washington is promoting legislation to adapt copyright law to new technology — and then leading the transition to the new platforms.”

Indeed, adaptations to new forms of technology will always be a must for the survival of artists and media companies. However, their survival also very much depends on providing a product that is worth its weight in gold on all fronts.

 

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