Watching the SOPA/PIPA saga unfold from the other side of the Atlantic, it was difficult not to see it as a ‘wave war’, in which companies which grew up in different technology waves compete to set the frame of economic and policy discussion. On the one side, the media companies, creatures of the mass production era that dominated much of the 20th century; on the other, the technology companies that have grown up in the digital wave that followed it. (I wrote about these waves in the Futures Company Futures Perspective report, Technology 2020).
The technology companies seem to be on the right side of the generational wave.
As The Futures Company noted last week in Futures Five, its fortnightly US newsletter for its syndicated MONITOR clients,
most [Millennials] see far more nuance in pirated content-sharing than other generations: According to the 2011 Yankelovich MONITOR, 70% of Millennials indicate it’s “sometimes forgivable” if a person “views or downloads pirated content online (such as movies, television shows, music or shows),” almost double the 34% of Baby Boomers who feel the same way.
Of course, this is not a uniquely American issue. The proposed international treaty ACTA has the same intent as SOPA, as do sections of the UK’s Digital Economy Act. My view on this was shaped by James Boyle, the Duke University scholar who wrote The Public Domain, and his view was shaped by Thomas Jefferson, the first policy-maker to think seriously about copyright (yes, that Thomas Jefferson).
Legally sanctioned monopoly
In a nutshell, we need copyright to reward creators, but in creating this legal privilege (which is a form of legally-sanctioned monopoly), we need to balance it so we don’t kill off the social, cultural, and economic gains from the free flow of knowledge, which let creators and innovators stand on the shoulders of others. The hugely extended copyright periods we now have in the USA and the UK are a grotesque tribute to the lobbying powers of media owners and old rock stars.
There’s another point here, too, about the way in which the mental landscapes of politicians shift only slowly. It’s been said that American politicians were surprised by the strength of opposition to the SOPA and PIPA bills, and more surprised to discover that their media industries were small fry, in economic terms, when compared to the tech industries.
The UK had a similar problem, in a very different sector, a decade ago. In response to an outbreak of foot and mouth disease, the government closed off large swathes of the countryside, only to discover that rural tourism and leisure were worth far more to the economy than farming. The policy-makers understood this. The politicians didn’t, because they’d got used to the farmers’ lobby. But, as with SOPA, the noise of the lobbyists had drowned out the quiet shifts of long-term change.
The image at the top is from the Bangstyle blog, where you will also find a perspective from the independent music sector. It is used with thanks.