What initially sounded like a somewhat gormless idea — blacking out websites to draw users’ attention to the Stop Online Piracy and Protect IP acts before US Congress — has turned out to be dramatic intervention in the battle against SOPA and PIPA.

In particular, Wikipedia blacking out (easily circumvented by turning off javascript, but that’s beyond a lot of users) appears to have acted as a mass distribution mechanism for information on the draconian bills. Plainly it’s not just journalists who rely on the crowd-sourced banalities of Wikipedia; tens of thousands of people took to Twitter to alternately complain, bitch and cheer the removal of what is evidently a key resource for most of the Anglophone world’s students.

Timing is everything, however: the blackout coincided with a tipping point against the bills, with the DNS provisions crashing and burning, the Obama administration rejecting the bill and even Congressional supporters sniffing the wind and backing away from them. Doubtless they’ll try again — they receive too much in the way of bribes donations from movie and music companies not to — but SOPA has suffered a remarkable turnaround in fortunes over the holiday break.

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This has plainly made the copyright industry deeply unhappy. And the unhappiness has rippled all the way to Australia, with Dan Rosen, of one of the local branches of the copyright industry, ARIA, writing for The Australian today to attack piracy. Rosen was clever enough not to outright back SOPA, but he backed Rupert Murdoch’s bizarre, straight-out-wrong attack on Google last week, and lamented “Google’s lax attitude to intellectual property rights” and the need for a “properly functioning market” for content rather than chaos.

It was strawman nonsense from Rosen, complete with an attack on the NBN as a “fat pipe for piracy, accelerating the demise of local production and innovation”. Maybe Rosen would prefer we stayed in the good old days of dial-up, when downloading a song took an hour.

It’s not a proper copyright industry argument, of course, without dodgy figures. Rosen claims “piracy rates estimated close to 40%” in Australia — without saying what the 40% was actually of. Internet traffic? Users? The population? And what’s the basis for this claim? The content industry itself, via a much-derided report last year that tried to apply a discredited European piracy study to Australia, cited approvingly the results of an ARC Centre for Excellence for Creative Industries paper that concluded 27.8% of Australian internet users had used file sharing software. I guess that’s close enough to 40% if you use Alan Jones-style rounding up.

The report, produced for the Australian Content Industry Group, of which ARIA is a member, used the ARC paper to claim 4.7 million out of 17 million Australian internet users had accessed content illegally. The only way you can get anything like 40% is if you use the consultant’s 2016 projections of 8 million users accessing illegal content, but keep the number of Australian internet users the same for that year (which, duh, won’t happen).

This is the problem when you churn out so many reports: you end up not being able to stay consistent with your own figures. Maybe Rosen was recycling some of the apocalyptic copyright industry warnings about VCRs from the early 1980s and accidentally left a figure in from back then.

The best part of Rosen’s piece is when he claims “it is incumbent on content industries to innovate and invest in new commercial models to allow consumers to access legal digital content”. This is like the typewriter industry announcing it is finally getting around to facing up to the challenge of PCs. The copyright industry — first the music industry, which had the bad luck to be the first industry hammered by the internet, then the movie industry — has had well over a decade to retool their business models to the digital age. They could have chosen to recognise what was happening online and move to make content available more cheaply, more easily, in the formats and at the time that their consumers wanted it.

Instead, they chose to do three things to protect their analog-era business model based on gouging customers and exploiting information control: to litigate against their customers, eventually resorting to using ambulance chaser law firms to do their work for them because of reputational damage; to spend vast amounts convincing legislators of the need to impose ever-more draconian copyright protections; and to churn out garbage economic modelling and laughable advertising campaigns to convince people of the dire impact of filesharing.

None of it has worked. File sharing traffic increased remorselessly and is set to accelerate in coming years.

While the copyright industry has tried to protect its analog business model, Apple and other digital natives have simply moved into the content space and started making billions that, had the copyright industry had a scrap of innovative thinking within it, it should have been collecting. There is a commercial model to allow consumers to access legal digital content, and it’s been running for years. It’s just that the copyright industry didn’t have the wit to think of it. Rosen’s idea of a “properly functioning market” plainly means a market that functions like it did before the internet.

It makes sense, of course, that such a piece of copyright industry propaganda should appear in a News Limited publication: News Corporation is a key player in the copyright industry; it is a member of both the Motion Picture Assocation of America and the Recording Industry Association of America. A couple of years ago, Techdirt explained all the ways News Corp made money from other people’s content. It now no longer owns sites like movie site Rotten Tomatoes, which is wholly dependent on aggregating content, because that ended up being owned by — guess who? — a movie studio, Warner Bros. But given News Ltd’s newspapers in Australia — like most media outlets — frequently filch photographs and video from social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, often without attribution, the railing of the company against piracy should be taken with a grain of salt.

Even if SOPA and PIPA are defeated, the copyright industry’s current tactic is to use litigation and legislation from compliant parliaments to force ISPs to monitor users’ internet activity to ensure it isn’t directed at anything of which the copyright industry disapproves. This is a concerted international strategy, one that, as the WikiLeaks cables showed, the US State Department is involved in implementing as well. The copyright industry will continue to be a clear and present danger to not merely online freedom but real-world rights as well for a long time to come.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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