Our latest in Freakonomics: this time on the possibility of gov’t-sponsored *legal* piracy sites in Antigua and Barbuda. Why would governments do this? It’s related to a trade dispute with the U.S., and WTO rules that allow retaliation for US misbehavior. Read on for the details . . .
Kal and I will be guest-blogging this week on The Volokh Conspiracy, a great, lively and widely-read blog run by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh (pictured left) and featuring posts from over a dozen of Eugene’s friends and colleagues, mostly from a libertarian or conservative perspective. Our first post is up now.
Bob Dylan is a provocateur, a habitual obfuscator, and a bit of a crank. That said, he’s also that rare and precious thing, a genuine artistic giant. His music will endure. And that makes his comments on plagiarism, reported just now, particularly noteworthy. Asked for his thoughts on critics who’ve noted that he often snatches bits of poetry and prose from other writers and works them into his lyrics without attribution, Dylan cut to the chase: “[Only] wussies and pussies complain about that stuff.”
I can just hear Dylan saying “wussies and pussies” in his trademark nasal rasp.
Dylan added that in folk music,”quotation is a rich and enriching tradition”,and that in taking inspiration — and even lyrics — from other writers, he was “working within [his] art form.” “It’s that simple,” Dylan added, “It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.”
Yes, but not all of us do it this well.
Nearly half a century ago now, the civil rights movement was fundamentally changing politics and values in the United States. It was stunningly successful, largely non-violent, and the U.S. and the world are hugely better places for it. And in the decades since, all social movements have, at least to some extent, been judged according to its example.
All of which helps set the recent uproar over copyright and Internet freedom in some context. Back in January, huge online protests in the U.S. derailed two proposed copyright laws, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Opposition to SOPA and PIPA focused on the dangers those measures created for the free and open Internet, but there was a broader complaint as well — that copyright had gone too far, and, rather than sparking new creativity, was inhibiting access to creative works, and preventing the production of new creative works, especially online.
And then almost immediately the action moved to the other side of the Atlantic, with massive online and physical protests (some with as many as 50,000 participants) against adoption of the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The ACTA protests ended with the European Parliament voting overwhelmingly against adoption of the treaty. And as with the SOPA/PIPA debate, the conversation in the EU around ACTA quickly grew into a broader assault on what opponents of the new treaty see as over-zealous copyright enforcement online.
The point of this post is not to get into the specifics of that debate. (This is something we discuss in some detail in The Knockoff Economy.) Rather, we want to ask whether the debate around copyright, patent, and Internet freedom is about to cross over from a subject that has thus far been fought out largely among the content industries, techies, and lawyers, to one in which ordinary people feel they have a stake. That may be what we’re beginning to see in the SOPA/PIPA and ACTA debates. And we may be seeing it now in a new effort by Kim Dotcom, the head of Megaupload, to fight back against U.S. criminal charges against him and his business. Dotcom has a new website, kim.com, which he’s using to try to spark an ACTA-style protest movement on his behalf. For reasons we’ve explained before, the U.S. criminal case against Dotcom is, at best, complicated. Now Dotcom is trying to link his fate to that of the wider movement for Internet freedom. And he’s even got a music video, Mr. President, in which he croons (or really, sort of chants) his case to the world.
So, are we seeing the birth of a new civil rights movement?
It appears that DirecTV and Viacom have settled their protracted dispute over what DirecTV will pay to carry Viacom programming, including channels like Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, Spike, and BET. The battle had culminated in a nine-day blackout of Viacom channels for DirecTV subscribers. With the settlement, service has now been restored. But the deal comes at a price, and much of it will be paid by people who don’t even subscribe to DirecTV.
For Viacom, the problem was money: specifically, their insatiable desire for more of it. Video programmers like Viacom have been demanding — and getting — sharply increased fees for their programming. Over the past few years, the cable companies have paid nearly 8% more per year for programming, and they’ve passed much of that along to their subscribers in the form of higher cable bills. As a result, over the past decade, the average cable bill has risen by about 6% a year — more than twice the rate of inflation. And consumers are starting to rebel: a recent report by an industry consulting firm found that 2.65 million Americans canceled TV subscriptions between 2008-2011 in favor of lower-cost internet subscription services or video platforms.
This burgeoning trend of “cord-cutting” is what the cable and satellite companies fear most. And so they are doing everything in their power to try to stop it. The DirecTV/Viacom settlement is an example. Under the agreement, popular Viacom shows will become more widely available to DirecTV subscribers via a subscription-only online site. So DirecTV customers will be able to access their favorite programs online. But the rest of us may be out of luck. At least if we can believe Derek Chang, the executive vice president for DirecTV who led DirecTV’s negotiations with Viacom. Immediately after concluding the deal with Viacom, Mr. Chang gave a quote that made clear what he thought DirecTV had gained: “My expectation,” Mr. Chang said, “is that [Viacom] will not increase the amount of free programming they have online.”
So don’t look for Viacom to be expanding its offerings on Hulu and Netflix. Or on its Comedy Central website. And given the logic of their deal with DirecTV, I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount of Viacom programming available online actually shrinks. Pay close attention, Stewart and Colbert fans.
So, is there a problem here? Definitely. As cable companies collude with programmers to drive up consumers’ monthly cable bills, while restricting the availability of programming via lower-cost online services like Hulu and Netflix, we all know what the response is likely to be — more piracy. We don’t condone that. But in a world where piracy is the inevitable response to greedy, restrictive strategies like we see at play in the DirecTV/Viacom deal, perhaps we should be a bit more skeptical when the cable companies and programmers turn up in Congress complaining.