What I told my congressman, a sponsor of SOPA

[See follow-up post: “What my congressman, a sponsor of SOPA, told me“]

This morning I attended a meeting with my congressman and longtime friend, Jim Cooper. The small gathering was one of two he held today to hear from people who have let him know they support or oppose legislation that’s known popularly by its acronym, SOPA. As with any legislation, the name of HR 3261 was christened by its original sponsors who titled it officially, “The Stop Online Piracy Act to promote prosperity, creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation by combating the theft of U.S. property, and for other purposes.”

As I think all of us apple-pie eating Americans can agree on the prosperity through property part, it’s the and for other purposes that is now generating enough controversy to cause members of congress to reach out to people they may think can provide various points of view on the legislation.

There were about eight or so of us in the meeting this morning (there was another meeting at 1:00 p.m.). As this is Nashville, the music industry was represented. There was a successful song-writer representing the songwriters association and a senior executive from a music company who still claims the company is a small startup, despite its current status as a financial juggernaut thanks to its embrace of a business model that would not have been possible before the advent of the internet — an irony apparently missed by the company.

As (and this may surprise you) there are other industries in Nashville that have nothing to do with music, other groups and points of view were represented. The Nashville Technology Council’s new CEO was there and a couple of developers who were well-versed on the evils of SOPA. I was there because I happened to mention SOPA in passing to Jim during a Thanksgiving Day gathering we both attended. (Note to self: Don’t do that again.) At the time, I knew little (nothing) about SOPA, except for my long-held theory that I should be against anything that is jointly supported by a consortium of unions, big corporations and the entertainment industry. (Like I said, it’s a theory.)

It didn’t surprise me that Jim is a sponsor of SOPA. If I were a congressman representing Nashville, it would be hard for me not to support legislation backed by every company that has a big building along the two streets in Nashville that comprise our most famous landmark avenue: Music Row.

What’s more, when the objectives of the legislation are listed, it would be hard for anyone who gets goose-bumps whenever they see the American flag waving in the breeze to be against it. However, as David Carr explains in a column earlier this week in the New York Times, “The bill has exposed a growing fracture between technology and entertainment companies. Digitally oriented companies see SOPA as dangerous and potentially destructive to the open Web and a step toward the kind of intrusive Internet regulation that has made China a global villain to citizens of the Web.”

(For a great bibliography of writings for, and against, SOPA, the reference section of the SOPA Wikipedia article will provide you with several hours of reading enjoyment covering all sides of the issue.)

My friend, Jim Cooper, is very, very smart (as in, Rhodes Scholar smart) and, frankly, if you didn’t know better, you’d think he is a university professor (which he is) and not a politician. I like him a lot and have supported him since he first ran for Congress when we were both in our 20s. Our children grew up together. He is intellectually curious and has a commitment to congressional reform that even Larry Lessig, as reported by Cory Doctorow, recognizes as genuine and forward-thinking. (I hope that’s enough of a caveat before the word “but.”)

But currently, he’s wrong on SOPA. While he explained today that sponsorship of the legislation is not necessarily a commitment to vote for it, the  shading of language in that explanation is the type of nuance that encourages cynicism among citizens who may not be schooled on how one can “sponsor” something but not support it.

Jim represents a congressional district with more songwriters per-capita than any place on earth. (I made up that stat, but feel free to use it and say you read it on the internet.) The backers of SOPA in Nashville have brilliantly positioned songwriters as the poster children in their fight for SOPA. (If Pew Research had a survey about songwriters, no doubt they would rank right below soldiers and firemen as the people we most want to give a hug of thanks to.)

This morning’s SOPA meeting was, at least to me, an encouraging airing of the issues that alarm those who are against SOPA (like me) and those who support it. There was passion in the room, but no rancor.

I came away from the meeting thinking (however, this is a very personal opinion that was not stated or implied by anyone) that as SOPA’s critics turn up the heat (and the general population has seen nothing yet as to what type of heat its opponents can apply to demonstrate what some of the obvious unintended consequences could be if SOPA became law), members of Congress will look for ways to make SOPA go away, while appearing to make it look like they are doing something. Already, the bill’s sponsors have watered it down considerably from its original form. Water it down enough and it may as well be one of those Congressional proclamations declaring “National Anti-Piracy Week.”

Source: Distrust, Discontent, Anger and Partisan Rancor (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1569/trust-in-government-distrust-discontent-anger-partisan-ranco

The biggest challenge that will face SOPA when awareness of it spreads from the geek community to a broader audience of internet users is this: SOPA is currently a bill with so many hypotheticals and economic theories swirling around it, no one can honestly say what the outcome will be if it is enacted. And (going back to my earlier-stated theory), those theories are provided by big business, unions and the entertainment industry.* Now, if you take a look at the chart accompanying this paragraph (if you’re reading this on my blog), you can see the relative levels of trust Americans place in different institutions, according to a Pew Research survey about 18 months ago. In other words, this legislation comes from a consortium of the institutions who Americans inherently distrust the most (except bankers).

That said, the entertainment industry is doing a great job of humanizing SOPA by focusing on protecting songwriters (have I mentioned how much I love songwriters?) who have been the biggest losers in the shift away from physical music to digital (especially in Nashville). I’ll admit, however, when I hear songwriters complain of their plight, it sounds just like former reporters from newspapers who have had their world change also (but for some reason, we don’t love them as much as we do songwriters).

SOPA is, in my opinion, nothing more than an attempt to wrap the word piracy around the preservation of a business model that has left the building. The entertainment industry should seek ways to work with their fans to help them understand the ramifications of piracy  (and to find ways to give a bigger share of their revenues to songwriters). However, the entertainment industry seems more interested in turning their fans into convicts and the internet into something that can help bring back their good old days.

Lots of musicians in Nashville have figured the internet out. They are making it work for them.

They have figured out that obscurity is worse than piracy.

They don’t view people who love their music as the enemy.

*Later: This post from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the groups leading the fight against SOPA, explores some of the specious stats regarding the negative impact on jobs caused by piracy. For example, the film industry claims piracy has caused the loss in jobs that is greater than the entire number of jobs in the industry before piracy. While I’m always hesitant to believe anyone’s self-serving statistics, my point in this post is to underscore the fact that the entertainment industry’s statistics are as believable as Disney Studios fairy tales.

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  •  I’m sure the top half of this list has a much higher negative percentage now. 

  • Well written Rex. There are many layers to this, while  I am not convinced that SOPA has been thought through thoroughly yet, I am sure that without property rights  there is no marketplace. Copyrights are like real-estate, Some VERY valuable some not. The market is speaking here, and Nashville has a leadership role to play in building the next era of solutions in the entertainment space. 

  • John, while I couldn’t agree with you more that Nashville needs to play a role in building the next era of solutions in the entertainment space, I’m not following the property rights/marketplace issue. What about about companies that are built on free and open software — software that is created as a refutation of traditional concepts of property ownership. I think we’ve reached the point where there are plenty of examples of artists, musicians and other creators who have become successful by using the internet to gain audience (fans) and then who have “monetized” those relationships in all sorts of ways that do not reflect classic notions of transaction-based marketplaces.