Tim O’Reilly: Why I’m fighting SOPA


Tim O'Reilly

As the debate about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) rages on from Silicon Valley to Washington DC, a number of the technology industry’s most influential leaders have come out against the proposed legislation, which would give the government and private corporations unprecedented powers to remove websites from the internet for any alleged copyright infringement.

On Thursday, I interviewed Tim O’Reilly about why he believes SOPA is wrong and what the tech industry can do to stop it. His concerns fell into five main categories:

Piracy is not a real problem

The way I see it, there’s a lack of need for any legislation at all. As a publisher, I have a very deep experience here, and the fact is that piracy is not a significant problem. Yes, there are people who are pirating my books, there are people who are sharing links to places where they can be downloaded. But the vast majority of customers are willing to pay if the product is widely available and the price is fair. If you have a relationship with your customers, and they know you’re doing the right thing, they will support you.

The people who are pirating are most likely the people who would never give you a nickel to begin with. Piracy serves people on the fringes who are not being served adequately by legitimate markets. Frankly, if people in Romania can download my books and enjoy them, more power to them. They weren’t going to pay me anyway.

SOPA protects the wrong people

I talked with Nancy Pelosi about SOPA the other day, and she said that the experience with piracy is different for people in the movie industry. Maybe — I’m not a movie producer. But I do know that right now the entire content industry is facing massive systemic changes, and to claim that declining sales are because of piracy is so over the top. Any company that is providing great content online in a way that’s easy to use with a fair price has a booming business right now. The people who don’t are trying to fight that future.

So here we have this legislation, with all of these possible harms, to solve a problem that only exists in the minds of people who are afraid of the future. Why should the government be intervening on behalf of the people who aren’t getting with the program?

SOPA ignores history

If you look at it from a historical perspective, the American book publishing industry as a whole began with piracy; there are lots of documents of Charles Dickens and the like taking a stand against these American pirates who were stealing their work. But America went on to become the largest publishing and copyright market in the world. Once the market matures, the pirates go away. They always do. Legitimate markets work better than pirate markets.

More recently you can see this in what happened with the music industry. For a while, music companies were fighting peer-to-peer file sharing. But once Apple came out with iTunes, which was an alternative that was easy to use and fairly priced, it became a huge business. Our policy makers need to encourage the people who get it right, not protect people who clearly didn’t get it right. They need to protect our future.

Tech and lobbying don’t mix

Certainly, the tech industry needs to do a lot more lobbying in Washington, DC. But the whole notion of lobbying is anathema to so many tech people, and for good reason. We’re used to a world in which people design products that have a purpose, where your work speaks for itself. So yes, the tech industry should try to communicate more with the people in DC, but at the same time, congresspeople need to use more of their own independent judgement.

[Update: O’Reilly has expanded upon the topic of tech industry lobbying in a Google+ post, which can be found here. A portion of his additional comments has been added below.]

For example, when I talked with Nancy Pelosi at [San Francisco] Mayor Ed Lee’s inauguration on Sunday, she assured me that she was opposed to SOPA, but that the bill couldn’t just be voted down because of the concerns of the movie industry. I had this bizarre image of the Google Search Quality team meeting with content farms before rolling out the Panda search update to “take into account their concerns.” In the end, Google was making changes that they knew were in the best interest of their users, and the fact that this would hurt the business of various companies producing low-quality content shouldn’t (and presumably didn’t) enter into the equation.

… This isn’t a matter of simply weighing the concerns of one set of lobbyists against those of another, but using a standard of care and independent judgment about what is best for our society. If Congress isn’t knowledgeable enough to make that determination, they need to be consulting independent experts, not lobbyists for one side or the other.

The US needs tech innovation

Laws like SOPA make us sclerotic as a country, where we have all these extra burdens that provide little benefit. In general it makes America less competitive. If SOPA goes through, it could very well force certain innovative companies to go offshore. There are incumbent industries that will always protest every new technology; but any forward-looking country needs to protect its emerging industries.

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