People will still pirate if George Clooney says not to


Producer, agent and New York columnist Gavin Polone is a show-biz insider if ever there was one, so his column on why he’s for SOPA – and why he thinks the entertainment industry got beaten this time around – seems like it might be a barometer of what show-biz insiders have learned from this fiasco.

The producers and studios were taken aback by the negative public reaction, and feel that they were the victims of misinformation spread by their enemies, like Google. Google, in the minds of at least some insiders, has an interest in encouraging (or at least not discouraging) piracy; I’ve even seen mutterings that Google and other companies want to reduce the value of the studios’ libraries, to make it easier to compete with them or buy them outright. From the producers’ point of view, the talking point that SOPA would “break the internet” is an example of how they can’t compete with Google when it comes to spreading a message. Websites were able to spread this talking point at great speed, and start a viral campaign that the studios simply couldn’t match.

This is why you see Polone arguing that they could have won this if they had simply had better messaging, and making a rather hilarious suggestion about what kind of messaging would work: “Motion picture, television, and recording executives should produce 30-second commercials starring famous actors and musicians that say, basically, this is not about censorship, it is about protecting American products from overseas thieves.” The idea that a 30-second spot with a movie star arguing for SOPA could have helped turn it around seems very, very dubious. Especially since any movie or music star famous enough to make an impact in a commercial is already wealthy, even with the existence of online piracy. Their presence in such a commercial would just come off like that South Park episode where illegal downloads forced Britney Spears to get a Gulfstream III jet instead of a Gulfstream IV.

What the producers are doing is what people often do when they’re on the losing side of an issue: they assume that they could have made it popular if they had just had the right framing. But some messages aren’t popular. Quite apart from the potential unintended consequences of SOPA, there’s simply no way to convince most people that having less free stuff, and having more websites shut down (by the government or by copyright owners) is a good thing. Maybe more people could be made to believe it’s fair, but you can’t mobilize people in favour of it.

The producers probably knew on some level that it wasn’t popular, which is why they tried to get it through the way these things usually go through: very quickly, without a lot of attention paid to it. Once the law was noticed, they were sunk. What has thrown the entertainment companies for a loop is that they are used to having a great amount of lobbying power, and the tech companies like Google have now grown to a point where they can match the entertainment companies in lobbying power – maybe not in the amount of money they give to politicians (yet) but the amount of attention they can bring to something and the number of voters they can mobilize over an issue.

Whether the entertainment companies need something like SOPA is unknown to me; they can’t prove that they’re not just using the internet as a scapegoat for their larger problems, which is certainly what a lot of people suspect. But this was their last chance to, basically, write a bill themselves and push it through. U.S. politicians tend to be very receptive to entertainment producers, not just because of the money, though that helps, but because entertainment is one of the few popular things the U.S. still produces, and everyone is terrified of reducing its value. But the SOPA fight introduced a competing fear – the fear of hobbling the internet and the tech companies that are also producing things with a worldwide reach. In the future, the studios may have to split some of their power with these companies.

Not that internet-based companies are paragons of freedom. People may, for now, trust them more than the old media companies, because they’ve had less time to make us distrust them. But the internet has given people a lot of choice and freedom, and if the studios didn’t realize that regular people would be upset at a threat to that freedom – or that they wouldn’t be believed when they claimed there would be no unintended consequences – then they’re even more out of the loop than we thought. I don’t always agree with every charge lobbed at the studios; you often hear that the blame is entirely with their antiquated business model and lack of “innovation,” as though “innovation” is some kind of magic talisman (it’s sometimes used as a catch-all term for anything that results in success). But the SOPA battle definitely was the old story: a lobbying group assumes that it can get a law passed on favourable terms, only to be caught completely off-guard when a competing group turns up to lobby against it.

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People will still pirate if George Clooney says not to

  1. Try an experiment, walk into you favorite rental outlet and grab the most 10 most recent releases on dvd. Take them home and watch them all. Then truthfully judge how many you thought were truly entertaining to you, that you were happy to pay the rental fee to see them. I will be suprised if anyone gets past 2 or 3 of 10.

    That to me is the problem with the product studios kick out, and most people want to see a movie before the slap down the entirely stupid price to buy it. This is a very temporary media source that you are not allowed to copy and utilize saving the master for further copies when they get scratched etc.

    Can anyone still prove their purchase of every movie they have ever bought? Media formats change every few years requiring new hardware to play them, relegating all previous purchases to the garbage heap while studios resell a movie to someone that purchased the same movie previously.

    Ya… sure… it’s costing billions… BULL!

    • Movie studios no longer make 35 millimeter prints of classic films. A theater either has to show them by DVD or project them from Central Central. We can no longer see the movie the makers intended.

      • I was not aware of that Julian9ehp, thank you, another enormous savings in the production of a movie, dvd is far less expensive than even an old vhs tape in format as well.
        I do think if studios can legally stop someone from copying this fragile format they sell movies and music on, they should be liable to supply replacements for any media that no longer functions at 100%, including replacing vhs tapes with dvd. If you own the product you own it, if you are not allowed to copy it to preserve the master then it should be replaced by the manufacturer that prohibits copying.

  2. Technology giveth and technology taketh away. While copyright infringement is an important issue in today’s day and age as much as it ever was, it’s worth remembering that prior to being able to record music or movies and have them replayed for money in theatres or at home, entertainers actually had to go out and fill a theatre or arena or what-have-you in order to make a living. It’s the technology that enabled the “A”-listers, and the companies that grew up around them, to make fabulous wads of money for performing once (in a movie or on an album). Now that same technology has continued to evolve and has become the enemy. Boo-hoo – back to work for all of you! Face it, A-list celebs are still going to be rich… just not as rich. Hopefully the same will hold true in other areas of the economy too!

  3. This was a grassroots movement that Google and the “tech companies” that you cite latched onto. You have it all backwards.

    And the grassroots movement was never about wanting “more free stuff”. It was about the fundamental problems with lack of due process, the way that the bill would completely break the way the internet works, and the way it would extend American law across the world to all sorts of international websites.

    The biggest opponents of SOPA have nothing against stronger protection from copyright thieves. They have a big problem however with trying to kill a flea with an Atom Bomb, when politicians seem to have no idea or understanding of the collateral damage they would cause by dropping that bomb, and when the industry pushing that bomb doesn’t seem to care.

  4. Can anyone think of another industry that can duplicate and disseminate its goods at zero cost per additional unit?
    Imagine if a gold producer only had to mine gold every once-in a while to produce an unlimited amount of it.
    Think it would still be worth the same per unit?
    Well this is what the entertainment bigwigs are trying to claim apparently: That they get to decide how an unlimited supply gets proliferated. How clueless can they be?
    Clearly the creators need to get paid, and our goal needs to be to ensure the creation of new material continues. I’m even in favour of these people making gobs of money to do it.
    However, suggesting that the old model is the way to do that is ludicrous.
    We have a new paradigm in place where certain types of products can be spread everywhere in the world all at once. Billions of copies going everywhere.
    Do we really want to mess with that by insisting on outdated payment models?
    For pete’s sake, if these guys would get with it and find a more intelligent model than the per unit one, they would likely make WAY MORE MONEY than they do now!
    Talk about a limited imagination.
    And these are the people leading the CREATIVE industry?

  5. Honestly, I think the industry is actually underestimating people, and because of this they’re using the wrong tactics, commercials being the most humorous to date. Most people I know who download prefer legal means. I suspect that’s because the majority do indeed agree with the theft label to some degree. The problem is there’s really very little simple and legal access to a whole load of stuff people WANT, i.e. there’s a demand for.
    Look at the success of ITunes. They haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of their offerings and interactive capabilities and they do pretty good business.
    Before declaring the industry dead without these insane control tactics, they should at least make an effort to win people over, i.e. by providing online content?! They’ve done bloody little of that while dumping god knows how many millions into lobbying and the like to tick people off. Sitting on your hands isn’t a great way of getting backing or sympathy from YOUR CUSTOMERS?!
    There’s been very little use of existing popular online social infrastructure as a gateway for example. Hell, there’s been little use of pretty much anything. Apple’s practically by itself out there in terms of music. Netflix and the like are still in their infancy. The industry has been slooooow on all this.
    If in the final analysis it turns out that yes indeed the horse and buggy have been metaphorically replaced by the model-T and there’s no way to adapt, then well, that speaks for itself too.
    After all, are YOU going to go back to shoveling horse poop out of moral indignity at the pollution caused by cars?

    Yeah, me neither.
    Either way, I know this for sure: Music and movies will still be made, they’ll still be good, and the artists will still make lots of money. Beyond that I fail to see what the argument is really about. The world has changed paradigms and isn’t remotely done changing, so I find it hard to take some aspects of the handwringing at various micro-stages all that seriously in the long view.
    Get in the game or stop complaining, because the world’s moving forward: with or without you!

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