By Brian Jackson
“PIPA and SOPA? How about NOPA!” So read the protest splash page on Minecraft.net in place of its usual content during Wednesday’s Web strike against anti-piracy legislation being considered by U.S. lawmakers.
While the legislation hasn’t been defeated yet and many Web firms that joined in the protest say they aren’t done, surely they must be doing at least a small happy dance after the Web strike stunt went so swimmingly. Twitter lit up like a Christmas tree with support for the movement and shocked statements of surprise about Wikipedia not being available to instantly deliver answers (which made me concerned about some student’s ability to research, but I digress). Several U.S. law makers publically backed away from supported the Stop Online Piracy Act (in Congress) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (in the Senate), and Google reported that 7 million signed its online petition against the bills.
Even the White House publically acknowledged a petition against the bills, saying “we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.”
But the White House staff writing the letter also had this appeal: “Rather than just look at how legislation can be stopped, ask yourself: Where do we go from here? Don’t limit your opinion to what’s the wrong thing to do, ask yourself what’s right.”
This points out that even if SOPA and PIPA are defeated, the root problem hasn’t been solved. There are powerful content-based industries out there that see their business model as being under threat. Without the ability to control the means of distribution as it used to, the movie and music industries are seeing what used to be profitable business models slowly erode. While I’m skeptical that piracy has played as crucial a role in this as industry lobby groups say that it has, it is no doubt a part of the problem. Piracy, and Internet distribution systems in general have created a generation that expects to be able to receive content for free.
This race to the bottom on price is perhaps most evident in the mobile app market, as I was reminded when attending this week’s GameON: Finance conference in Toronto. A couple of years ago, it was common to see almost as many paid-for apps in Apple’s App Store as there were free apps. But now there are so many free apps to compete against that most mobile developers consider it folly to even try to put a price tag on their product. The accepted ratio of mobile app downloaders willing to pay versus never willing to pay is two per cent to 98 per cent.
So the question remains, how are content developers supposed to make a dollar these days? While SOPA and PIPA were overly broad pieces of legislation that threatened to break the Internet and censor free speech, they were at least attempts to protect the value of digital content – content that people used to happily take money out of their wallets to pay for, but no longer.
Adapting business models to modern technology is definitely the best step towards protecting that value. Look no further than what Apple has accomplished with iTunes and the App Store, or the popularity Netflix’s all-you-can-watch streaming service has achieved. Many mobile app makers are enthusiastic that a “freemium” business model – where you give away an entry-level product for free and then sell more functionality on top of that – will work.
But adapting to a business model that results in a much lower price per piece of content, or funnels the sum of money collected into fewer pockets won’t be enough to fix the problem. Our society may at some point have to stomach legislation that protects creator’s intellectual property to some degree, so they can continue to be incented to do the work we all enjoy so much.
Or we could start opening up our wallets when we want to be entertained. But how likely is that?