The Right to Piracy: The Conflict Behind SOPA

Brad Burnham, Managing Parter at Union Square Ventures, explains that internet piracy isn't always a matter of stealing for the sake of stealing. Often, it's about gaining access when none has been made available. Content distributors, he suggests, need to adapt to changing times rather than maintain an outdated status quo. Burnham also delves into the highly-debated SOPA legislation which would propose new restrictions on sites like YouTube and Twitter.
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TRANSCRIPT

Brad Burnham: The intent of SOPA is to reign in the offshore pirate sites that host a lot of copyrighted content.  The challenge is this - there is a regime called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or the DMCA that manages and creates a balance between the tech industry, the internet industry and the content industry, largely Hollywood, record companies.  That balance today is that if an internet company is made aware of copyrighted content on their site they’ll take it down.  That is working pretty well domestically.  The problem is that the DMCA doesn’t reach offshore and the internet is a global phenomenon and there is a bunch of sites in various parts of the world that are hosting intellectual property that was created in the United States and hosting it illegally.

The content creators can’t get at those sites because they are in jurisdictions where US law has no effect - and so they can’t get directly at the people who are breaking the law, so what they’re trying to do is eliminate or sort of take those sites off of the US internet, make them invisible to US users.  In order to do that they’ve asked Congress to make social networks, search engines, internet service providers, domain name service providers, payment processors and advertisers responsible for basically policing their users - basically preventing their users from seeing this content.  So to make it—sort of to give you an analogy that would make this a little bit more obvious:  this is essentially making the phone company responsible for the illegal behavior of people using the phone network to commit crimes.  The phone company is an intermediary.  They are not committing the crimes, but if you made them responsible for any crimes that were committed on their network you would certainly have an impact on crime.  You would also clearly have an impact on the phone company.  It would be a huge burden on the phone company. 

In the same way this act places a huge burden on internet services that a lot of services that are built on user-generated content like YouTube or Facebook are going to be responsible for policing those users.  As you can imagine they are very concerned about this new - brand new - liability that this law would create for them.

I have said in the past that essentially the internet and the internet culture is all about empowering the individual, empowering the edge, creating opportunity and the content industry in this case is really trying to control the behavior and those two philosophies are really in conflict.

Let me give you a personal example.  My wife and I have gotten into a series called Downton Abbey on the BBC and a friend or ours alerted us to the series and we started watching it and it’s a great sort of upstairs, downstairs story.  It was very well done and we went through the whole first season on Netflix in about two weeks.  Then our friend says, “You know the second season is available too.”  And we were like great; let’s go watch the second season.  So we went to watch it and then we get pointed to this site.  I think it was called Mega Upload and I'm starting to think oh, I'm not sure I want to do this.  I'm in the middle of this debate.  I don’t want to go someplace that may not be legal and I said I don’t like the sound of this.  Let me go see if I can find this content legitimately - and so I go to the BBC website in Europe and sure enough the entire second season, every episode is available for streaming from the BBC site in London.  So I launch episode one and the first thing that happens is a little dialogue box comes up and says, “You’re not in the United Kingdom.  You’re in the United States.  You can’t watch this.”  

What that made me realize is that there is a whole lot of piracy that’s going on as a result of the fact that you just can’t get it.  I mean I would have been happy to pay.  I pay Netflix for the content.  I would have been happy to pay.  So it’s not as much about whether this is right or wrong.

The problem is that the industry grew up in an era where distribution was very expensive and production was very expensive and so they parceled out rights and very carefully - rights to windows in time, release windows in various different media and then also geographic windows and the rights are all very convoluted and complicated. And we now live in a world where everything is accessible globally on the internet, and they are struggling to adapt to that and they’re trying to prevent the distribution of content across this network because it doesn’t conform with the way they have been licensing content over time.  We think that they are going to need to ultimately adapt to it because it doesn’t really make sense to criminalize all of your most passionate fans.  You’ve got to find a way to serve them in the medium that allows for access to this content very inexpensively and I think they can and I think they will.

Directed / Produced by
Elizabeth Rodd & Jonathan Fowler