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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