How Not to Argue Against SOPA

I’m still utterly horrified by the SOPA hysteria I mentioned earlier, especially since it’s coming from people who know better. Today’s post on GigaOm about Tim O’Reilly is a good case in point. (And before I go any further, let me state this clearly so it can’t be misconstrued, I’m not arguing in favor of SOPA and PIPA. I think they’re idiotic. I’m arguing in favor of combatting them with rationality rather than hysteria and bad logic.)

O’Reilly makes two points, both of which are simply wrong. The first is…

“Piracy is not a significant problem… Once the market matures, the pirates go away. They always do. Legitimate markets work better than pirate markets.”

This is a common fallacy I see over and over. “The movie companies fought VHS,” you’ll hear, “and it ended up being an enormous source of wealth for them.” True. But that doesn’t mean digital content distribution will.

There’s a standard disclaimer in every mutual fund prospectus that says “past performance is not indicative of future results”. It’s entirely possible (and in fact I believe it to be true) that digital distribution is such a fundamental shift in the nature of piracy that you can’t assume it will simply all pan out OK the way it always has in the past.

In the VHS days to pirate a movie I had to have someone who had two VCRs rent a movie, buy a blank VHS tape, and spend 2 hours copying it for me. The barrier to getting that done is not insubstantial when you consider that every single instance of piracy requires that. It’s not scalable.

Via digital distribution I just have to have someone not delete the torrent. It’s effortlessly scalable to millions of people. It’s not significantly less work to pirate it for anyone involved than it is to purchase it legally, and it is significantly less cost.

Sure, if you’re making books that teach people programming languages, they might be willing to pay. I think its fair to say that the music industry’s results have shown that it just doesn’t work the same way for music.

The second is the notion that SOPA/PIPA will somehow be bad for US-based startups. That would seem to be the case if you didn’t actually read them. The laws clearly apply only to foreign companies. If anything, it will be an unfair advantage for startups here. Rhapsody can perhaps simply get Spotify shut down for infringement (remember, there’s no burden of proof).

O’Reilly says that “If SOPA goes through, it could very well force certain innovative companies to go offshore.” I think the exact opposite is true. Foreign companies will come here to be protected by the DMCA.

And the worst argument of all (and O’Reilly didn’t pull this card) is the slippery slope. This is one of the most insidious logical fallacies around, because at least ad hominems don’t even attempt to masquerade as rational thought. This is the same as saying “if we allow gay people to marry pretty soon it’ll be legal to marry your dog”. It’s been used since time immemorial to argue against every single advance in civil liberties.

A government can’t simply not pass a law just because future laws might overreach. We didn’t need to slide down any slopes to get the PATRIOT Act, and whether or not SOPA passes will have no bearing whatsoever on censorship of legitimate free speech in the future.

So there you have it. If you want to argue against SOPA, there are plenty of good reasons. For one, it won’t stop digital piracy at all. I think it will severely curtail illegal sales of counterfeit goods and prescription medicines, but getting illegal music will just involve editing your hosts file or, more likely, getting a program that does it for you. 

Argue that the lack of any burden of proof makes it absurd in any scenario. Argue that it’s a violation of trade treaties, since it’s clearly showing preferential treatment to U.S.-based businesses. Argue that it was written word-for-word by lobbyists and endorsed by the politicians they pay.

There are so many reasons to dislike these acts that we don’t need to make up more.

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6 Responses to “How Not to Argue Against SOPA”

  1. Hi Matt,

    Good article, but I disagree with some of your arguments. For example:

    > Via digital distribution I just have to have someone not delete the torrent. It’s effortlessly scalable to millions of people. It’s not significantly less work to pirate it for anyone involved than it is to purchase it legally, and it is significantly less cost.

    False. Finding a torrent, evaluating if it’s in the right language, good quality, if it has enough seeds and leechers to be fast enough to bother, downloading it, checking the quality, etc. That’s a pain in the butt.

    I would happily spend £10 a month (which is much more than I spend buying movies every month – my average spend on movies is actually £0 right now, as is many people’s) for a service which provides me with fast downloads of a “complete” library of all available movies (“if it’s available on BitTorrent, it should be available legally”), with reliable quality, subtitles, and so on. I’d probably end up downloading 2-5 movies a month, some of which I’d keep, some of which I wouldn’t keep. However, I wouldn’t pay the same amount for streaming or DRM’ed copies, which I feel are vastly inferior.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one who would pay £10 a month for a generic “download any movie you want at top quality with the right subtitles/language/etc and no hassle” service. That would be infinitely more convenient than BitTorrent, and would be something that only a legally authorised entity can provide.

    Why is it impossible? Not because technology doesn’t allow it, or because it wouldn’t be a profitable model. Getting every household in the western world to pay £10/m for this service would generate vast amounts of money for the movie industry (maybe slightly less than the old distribution monopoly, but not necessarily so). It’s impossible because the current distributors cling to their past business models.

    SOPA is yet another vain attempt to keep that old business model going, to stop us from evolving to a more suitable distribution model.

    • You must not be looking on or one of the heavily edited torrent trackers. It’s no more effort to find music there than iTunes, and it’s got more selection and higher quality. Were piracy legal it’d be by far easier. is similarly awesome for television, though it isn’t too reliable these days.

      I don’t think it’s fair to say movie companies in particular are clinging to past distribution models. They’ve experimented quite a bit. They just are trying to maximize revenues and avoid being at the mercy of an iTunes-like gatekeeper, and whatever chunk they get of Netflix’s $10/mo is really too small to take that risk for.

  2. There are no facts to support your statement that Tim O’Reilly is wrong and there’s a fairly strong argument to make that the music industry has essentially proved him correct over the last decade. Today people use iTunes, Pandora, Spotify and other services because they’re easier and legal. There’s no reason to believe the same will not be true for video.

    If as you suggest to the readers, ‘you actually read the bills’, you would know that they do not clearly target foreign countries. The Bills use very vague terminology that almost certainly can and will be used to target companies any where in the world including the U.S. Very specifically SOPA allows private parties to require payment providers and search engines to suspend services with out any oversight. This single feature creates an incredibly hostile environment for all Internet companies and would almost certainly be fatal to many early phase startups.

    Contrary to what you imply in this post there is no evidence that any action is necessary by anyone. In fact there is beginning to be strong evidence that no action is the best course. The movie industry is trying to fight inevitable change it should be embracing it and providing it’s customers with the services they want.

    To see actual evidence that no action is necessary look at the 2010 GOA study, the recent Swiss Study or even the study that Envisonal did for NBC Universal. No credible study has been able to support the economic impact numbers the content industry throws around.

    The fact that you believe Tim O’Reilly’s arguments are the wrong way to combat SOPA is just evidence that to many people have been brain washed by decades of propaganda.

    • You’re quite simply wrong about the bills being vague. Read page 4, subsection 9 of Protect IP: here. And then read the rest. It’s not Hemingway to be sure, but it’s quite clear. Also whoever wrote this article about SOPA didn’t seem to be too confused.

      I don’t think iTunes, Pandora, or Spotify are good examples as the music industry loathes all of them. They fear another iTunes like gatekeeper to their content, and the other two pay them peanuts.

      O’Reilly’s arguments aren’t wrong because of propaganda, they’re wrong because they are logical fallacies. I really don’t know the economic impact of piracy on the music industry but I’d be willing to bet you could find studies showing it to be anywhere from enormous to non-existent.

      There’s plenty of propaganda on both sides at the moment. I still think SOPA and PIPA are idiotic, but I also find the “media companies just can’t innovate” argument disingenuous.

  3. ReArranged00 Says:

    “Argue that it was written word-for-word by lobbyists and endorsed by the politicians they pay.”

    While entertainment and drug companies are certainly pushing hard for this bill to go through, you can bet anything that tech giants like Google and Facebook are lobbying right back at them from the other end, for the obvious monetary reasons. You think those companies are any less seedy and willing to pay off a politician or two?

    The fact is that SOPA was introduced to prevent crime. The only legitimate argument against it (which is why I don’t support the bill) is that it will fail spectacularly in preventing what it is intended to do. But I think the intentions of the bill are good and if there was some way to alter it to make it more effective I would support it.

  4. [...] user wrote a comment I thought was worthy of a reply here: “Argue that it was written word-for-word by lobbyists and [...]

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