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Tim O’Reilly: Why I’m fighting SOPA

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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.

215 Responses to “Tim O’Reilly: Why I’m fighting SOPA”

  1. FellowTraveler

    The fact that lobbying is necessary at all, proves that we no longer have fair representation in Congress.

    When the Constitution was ratified, we had 1 representative in the House for every 30,000 constituents, and each Senator was appointed by their respective state legislatures. The reality today is far different.

    The fact is that having 400 people rule over 400,000,000 is the same as having 1 person rule over 1,000,000. I thought America didn’t believe in having kings?


  2. People from Romania are buying your books as well. The fact is that there are some who prefer to get them from other sources but its irrelevant since I’m sure there are enough US citizens who do the same.

  3. Mark Holmes

    I would actually go further and consider many pirated works a freely distributed promotional copy. In terms of films, many will hit the social networks to say they loved a film, few are likely to mention they pirated/stole it. Wider distribution, network effects with social proof of recommendation likely acting as an endorsement that will lead to further sales and rentals. In terms of books pirated, those who really want access to the knowledge but can not afford it and do not have a convenient library with all your titles in locally, may well in the long term become some of your biggest advocates and best customers after initially pirating. If the knowledge they gained opened the doors to a better future, I would imagine the brand equity would be pretty unbreakable.

    • Optimus Spime

      O’Reilly won’t be in business in 5 years time. In the past, you wanted the knowledge, you bought the book. Simple equation. Now that the same books are freely available why bother? Hell Tim O’Reilly himself says that “piracy isn’t a problem” – sounds almost like permission!

      A pirated book has the same content as the one I could pay $20 bucks for – except I get to keep the $20 bucks and spend it on stuff I have to pay for like gas. I can fill my iPad up for free with hundreds of books that would have cost me thousands of dollars.

      If no one pays for books – what’s the worst that can happen?

      • Mark Holmes

        He was saying that it is not a problem that significantly impacts real sales i.e. in his view, many of the people who pirate would not have bought the book in the first place. I think it likely goes further and will have a positive impact on brand and future sales, whether they be books, ebooks, seminars, conferences, educational videos ad infinitum.

        People will often pay for a product which is provides them with true value and will also often recommend the quality they encounter to others. If piracy exposes a greater level of content to a wider audience (not just the short tail of the heavily promoted) then perhaps the exposure will lead to a more diverse and active marketplace.

  4. Optimus Spime

    Given O’Reilly’s reputation with respect to how it treats its authors (there is a reason why very few choose to do more than a book or two), is it surprising that Tim doesn’t give a rats ass about piracy?

  5. Yeah, so… I’m Romanian and I buy those books.

    It wasn’t always like this, but as Alex Popescu already mentioned, the handful of books I haven’t paid for allowed me to develop my skills to the point where I actually afford buying them and more.

  6. Danielle Eber

    Piracy is just a smokescreen to get back in control. CBS complains about piracy of their products, while at the same time their c|net division distributes bittorrent software (see for proof).

    What they really want is a return to the days of one-way media, like TV networks were. A few media giants were the main way people got their news and entertainment – movie theaters, TV, newspapers, books, magazines – all one way.

    Computers and the Internet are two way devices. So instead of a few places being the source of everything, there are millions. So the dinosaur media are losing control. SOPA and other attempts to restrict the flow of information are an attempt to turn back the clock to the last century and will fail.

    Sure, there are commercial pirates and counterfeiters making money off of things, but the best way to catch them is to follow the money, not to stifle free speech for everyone else.

  7. anonymous coward

    I don’t understand. Why dont we start making a little re-architecture of our own. Bitorrent of dns data. Special bittorent client that takes the url you put in the browser, finds it on the torrents, and passes back the ip to the hosts file. Most people visit the same sites most of the time so a functioning and updated hosts file goes a long way to avoiding public dns servers. It makes browsing faster and safer (resistance to MITM attacks).

    Politicians’ actions have sidestepped their constituents in favor of their contributors. It’s nothing new-it’s just like corporations putting their shareholders before their customers for short term gains.

  8. I completely agree the US should protect emerging industries. But we also have to protect intellectual property across all industries. The idea that online piracy is not a problem is false. Not only do rogue sites swipe our products, cyber criminals steal our ideas every day. What do innovative ideas really get you if they are stolen and replicated cheaper somewhere else?

    • Hollywood does that all the time and I don’t see nobody putting a stop to it.
      So, is the law for everyone? I don’t think so.
      Anyways as somebody said already, piracy is an excuse, they look to control what we do on the internet, I mean piracy will probably still continue and we will be even more restricted than before, I don’t mind about respecting intellectual property, though I care about my privacy, and so should you.

    • Welcome to the world of business. Businesses steal the ideas of the public everyday and even from their own employees who are inadequately compensated. Business has been selling out the people who support them for decades now. Since Laissez Faire protects their interests, the public has no control over the lies that business uses to influence them. They say that the public should take responsibility for their action, yet business who has the ability paints a picture for the public that shows there is problem. Business plays off like the public in ignorant, and in some case you are correct. IF you want to sell your product and protect it, then show the public you are responsible to begin with by setting the example. Make these products affordable, stop strong arming the public by taking away their recourses and give those who contribute credit where credit is due. You will see that piracy will disappear through its social culture.

  9. Eddi Hughes

    He brings up a valid point, “If SOPA goes through, it could very well force certain innovative companies to go offshore.” – imagine what Silicon Valley and Bellevue would look like, ghost towns!!!

  10. Alex Popescu

    Kudos to Mr. O’reilly for acknowledging that accessing content by any nondestructive means can generate value – even if not immediately financial – for the copyright holders and for society at large. Not accessing it at all would mean zero value at all, for nobody.

    Having access to pirated material/software in the past what I wouldn’t have afforded at the time helped me develop skills that later on allowed me to afford paying for value. I’m still not 100% legit but I’m putting more money back in the system, some times because it’s easier to buy things the right way, sometimes just because it just feels better. It’s true that I’m biased in supporting smaller independent projects.
    greetings from Romania

  11. Robin Cannon

    This is a great piece, demonstrating the flaws in SOPA clearly and concisely. It’s a solid argument, and I’m pleased to see it being published today instead of the “Oh look, Lamar Smith had a copyright violation on his website” distraction that seems to have been dominating Twitter the last day or so.

  12. Hi Bob, I will your SOPA awareness app. Tim makes a very valid point. What we are witnessing here are industries who are unwilling to adapt to changing times and will use the excuse of protecting themselves from that 1 to 2% of people who abuse the system to restrict 98% of the rest of us. I’m not a criminal, don’t treat me as such! What made our country strong was that it was built on a certain entrepreneur model, but somewhere in the 80s and 90s, instead of innovating, companies became too big, lazy and concentrated more on business practices than innovation, while the rest of the world is set to take over. The Internet was designed as a free communication platform, period. Back bone providers would like to cash in on it, the entertainment industry would like to restrict it, but it will be self-defeating in the end. What we can do is send letters to our supposed elected officials and voice our discontent. Then we can use an even more powerful tool, spend our money wisely, away from those who tirelessly work daily to squash are diminishing freedom :) Simple, no?

    • Let us as a nation not forget the real issue here.
      1. The Federal government offices are suppose to be working for us, the people of the USA.
      2. The Federal government have taken control of way too much in our lives.
      3. This is just another control avenue on us, the people of the us.

      It is of my opinion that the Federal government is out of control in there attempts to control the SHEEPLE of this country and too many of you are just sitting on your thumbs and letting our rights and freedoms slip away from us.

      I say we gather up all Federal elected officials, Obama tied in the lead. We publicly Prosecute , Convict, and punish them to the fullest extent of the law !!!!!!!!!!!!
      This government is full of trades and Obama it there leader.


        first let me ask as you put hear to many of us are siting on our thumbs. What have or are you doing to correct this issue. Now don’t get me wrong I do agree with you their is a problem and the government is a problem however its not the governments fault it’s ours as Americans when we have a higher turn out to vote for American Idol then we do for the leaders of our country of corse the government will be full of people that have noones instrest at Hart other then their own. Of course when a congress member is offered millions to vote a certain way they will when 90% of the voting population pays no attention to this.

  13. legionzero

    You are so correct. Inspite of easy access to movies online and on swap meets for about 2 dollars per pirated movie the movie theaters still fill up. As you put it, people that are willing to pay for a product will do so, those without the cash flow or intention just wont, regardless of availavility online.

    • I actually disagree with the statement about people pirating because ease of use. I have known many people in my life who have laughed at me for going to the movie theater and paying to see movies, because they are free online. These ” people” don’t see value in quality, they only see value in free.

      I am still 100% behind killing this bill, I don’t believe government or corporations should have ultimate authority with out the checks and balances that would keep it fair.

      Also, why should people who wouldn’t pay for stuff then get that stuff for free? Wouldn’t that then make people who pay not want to pay so they could get it free as well?

  14. That´s the most clear, to-the-point and well written article I have read on the subject. It addresses exactly what is wrong with this legislation, where the real problems lie and downplays the role of piracy, which the big industry players want to pass as some sort of homeland terrorism. Nice job!

  15. SOPA is an initiative of MAFIAA and corrupted politicans. Money is their GOD and politicans are selling their souls for dollars to support few per-mils of population instead of supporting 99% of the rest.

    The real thing behind this is to suppress free flow of information. Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.

  16. Jim Anderson

    As usual, Tim says a bunch of smart-sounding things that have nothing to do with the issue at hand. This makes him a safe guest at conferences, but my boy needs to man up and make arguments supported by facts.

      • Jim Anderson

        Let’s start with this goofy little platitude: “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.”

        Name ten “booming” content-based online businesses. Even if you can, I’ll bet few of them meet The O’Reilly Standard for “great” and “easy to use” and “fair price” — whatever those highly subjective terms mean.

      • Jim Anderson

        Etsy is a content-based business? Huh?

        Makerbot? Perpetually out of stock devices that turn creative commons 3D files into lumpy, scratchy plastic? Uh…

        Netflix booming? I thought customers and content licensors were fleeing.

        Spotify is losing money and artists are bitching they’re not seeing money.

        Here’s what David Pakman (eMusic) said about iTunes [AmazonMP3|Movies/Spotify]: “The margins on these businesses are terrible and only at enormous scale contribute any meaningful profit.” Turning the work of artists into hardware sales is clever; but it’s really not part of the piracy discussion. Ask any music exec who got “purchased versus pirated” estimates based on Apple’s inventorying of all iPods via iTunes Match…

        The comics stuff is interesting, unfortunately I actually know people in that business. Talk to the artists and say the word “booming” with a straight face, then duck. Better yet, do it over lunch because they can’t afford one.

      • Rich Slazinski

        Ok so you are simply a troll. Your only contribution to the discussion so far is your vitriol-laced opinions. You started by challenging the author to use facts and yet you provide none yourself.

      • Jim Anderson

        @Rich Slazinsky Tim O’Reilly seems to feel comfortable talking for all publishers in all industries. His argument distills to:

        “Any company [that matches my politics] … has a booming business right now.”

        This is typical O’Reillian nonsense. O’Reilly himself doesn’t have a booming business. If he did, he’d provide sales figures. Instead he’s using the “I’m gonna talk about everyone else” approach, using absurd generalizations.

        Per my previous posts, lots of people with great “content,” priced premium down to free, seem to have trouble making money online. Pretending that everything is booming — or for that matter that said boom (or bust) even has anything to do with SOPA — is misguided.

        Back in reality, there are lots of ways to maximize revenue. Not all of them involve meeting pirates and consumers half-way on “Magic Tim’s pricing versus ease of use curve.” These revenue-enhancing options may include:

        · Lobbying or otherwise manipulating laws to encourage people to go with your product instead of alternatives

        · Externalizing costs that are your responsibility and forcing others to pay them.

        · Price fixing with “competitors”

        · Stealing someone else’s ideas

        · Duping customers with hidden costs, reneging on contracts, refusing to honor sales, rebates, or discounts

        · Getting subsidized or bailed out by the government

        · Using deceptive advertising, generalizations, or blog posts to imply dire consequences for those who do not believe your political views

        And that’s just the sleazy stuff. The less-sleazy stuff includes making efforts to combat theft. So I don’t blame anyone for trying to create laws (even overly broad ones) that facilitate that.

      • Seymour Butz

        Jim, how in the name of God can anyone tell a pirated MP3 file from one I ripped myself off a CD? And let’s not even get into legally-purchased M4Ps that have been converted into M4As to futureproof them. Or did the RIAA simply assume that all audio files that don’t carry the appropriate signature from Amazon, etc. are pirated? Remember, this is the industry that sued people for sharing Metallica MP3s that actually weren’t Metallica MP3s… some mischievous fellows renamed files to include “Metallica” and “MP3” in their name and their record company dutifully sued the sharers, despite never bothering to verify whether the shared data was infringing. You honestly want to give the kind of power that SOPA/PIPA grants to these incompetent fools?

  17. His first point is spot on. If ebooks for example were more widely available most people would happily buy them. I live in Italy and can’t easily get any ebooks or movies in English without black sources. There are very few consumer items worth massive effort. Spending money on them is effort enough. What prevails in life from the molecular level and up is the path of least resistance.

    • John W Campbell

      I gotta admit, I’m wanting to try ebooks. Easy access, no waiting for shipping,etc. But, the prices are insane! Some books are more expensive than the softcover version. Is the publishing industry trying to tell me that the cost of a “real book” is as about as cheap to produce as a digital version? If so, I don’t buy it. Make the prices of ebooks more in line with the true costs of production, including the costs paid to the author, and I’d be more likely to switch to ebooks.

      • Wendi Spayth Bragg

        Obligatory Baen library reference here: Publisher’s website offers free downloads or online reading in a variety of formats, free of any cumbersome DRM.

        Ebooks are sold at the same price as paper. Authors get double royalties. E-ARC’s are available for those who can’t wait for the editors to go through and fix the typos.

        Certainly the ebooks purchased through Baen are never any higher than the cost of the treeware version, and you don’t have to jailbreak the stupid things to read them across a variety of devices.

      • Andrew Molloy

        John, the licensing decisions by publishers are a concern but there is also an aspect of what the Government do. I don’t know about the USA but here in the UK (and possibly the EU in general) there is tax added to e-books and audio books that is not added to print books. Now THAT is insane.

      • I just bought the Kindle Fire for 199.00 which works with Amazon and I have to say that I have found many very affordable 2.00-3.00 books in e form and am loving it as I can carry a library in my pocket and be reading a half a dozen different books and switch between them at the flick of a finger.

    • GatorALLin

      I agree…and the cost to do ebooks is so much lower than printed copies…they should be 1/3 of the cost or less. In part lower cost to spread your ideas faster and over larger area (win/win, but requires advanced thinking that older systems were not built for).

    • I’d never buy and ebook. Not the same as a real book. If an ebook breaks, well, that’s a lot of money wasted. And many ebook ‘books’ are unavailable in certain countries.