Blog Post

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.

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

  1. What an idiot. “Piracy is not a problem”???? Have you taken a look at the music industry any time recently? Most people don’t think about it, but even Youtube is piracy on a massive scale… pick your favorite song by any artist & look it up there. I guarantee you can listen there for free without ever having to pay the artist a single penny. Yeah, that’s real honest justice & business…

  2. J. reaL Antonetti

    The problem is that a lot of people in DC are old fogies that either don’t have internet, don’t use it or are still using dialup to check their email on AOL… Does anyone truly believe any people sitting up there on their high horses give a crap about tech? It’s all about money and who will give them the most to support a cause… BLAH BLAH BLAH…. Our country boasts how it’s so advanced, with a government who is in the ice ages when it comes to anything currently relevant.

  3. SubHuman

    He is correct.
    I still enjoy going to the movie theater for the ambiance.
    And whether it is a matinee or late evening showing the place has a nice amount of customers in and out. The people who are actual pirates never pay for anything anyway. But like the offline criminals they are a small percentage of the total population and creating laws to restrict normal citizens will not help that. It will be just like a lot of the so called ‘cracking down’ on real world criminals. Or that Patriot Act nonsense. The normal law abiding citizen has to jump through hoops while the screwballs still get their way because they recognize no authority or law.
    A group of wealthy people who want to pass the point of inundating us with ads and commercials to actual control everything we get to experience. But this move is no surprise.

  4. To the Romanians that have responded, I’m sure Tim just picked a country at random and did not intend it to come across as you’re all thieves. He could have easily said Nigeria, or Korea, or Australia.

    I have pirated almost all of his books, and still end up buying those that I find to be useful and of good value to me. Now college textbooks… pirate everyone of those, they are insanely priced and of no real value after the class (except a few IT courses that use things like Tim’s books). There are a few places that “rent” textbooks at reasonable rates for 6 months (longer than I need) and those I’ll give my money to, if it’s actually a value.

    How about movies… I’ve watched leaked and pirated copies of movies, and if it’s good I’ll go see it at the theater to get the whole movie experience… if it sucks (like most Hollywood movies do these days) I won’t waste my time. Most movies I watch now are Korean (where I now live) as they still know how to tell a story and not just blow things up.

  5. Randy Stortroen

    Pollyanna is alive and well. SOPA is certainly an offensive piece of regulation but the alternative legislation by Wyden and Issa is a well-considered alternative. The status quo is not.

  6. Paul E Ogle Jr.

    Well if you think piracy is not a problem, you are just turning a blind eye. I just saw someone today selling pirated movies out of a large packed full suitcase. Better look again.

  7. To address the pirating concerns… It really sounds like most of you guys aren’t pirates… I’m a pirate, and if they close one door, pirates can just build another, shut down napster and there will be a limewire, shut down limewire, there are always torrents, shut down torrents, there will still be direct downloads, shut those down and there will be something else created… There is no way for these people to combat oneline piracy… they don’t have the manpower or the know-how…There has always been a pirate sector in history (online and offline)… and corporations are still rich to this day, because if someone wants something they buy it… period. I have a very firm rule of, if I like something and I want it to continue I support it, so, even though I am a pirate, I still buy lots of stuff…

    I said all that to say, even if SOPA passes, I’ll still be pirating… but it will be the more casual internet user effected the most harshly by this. And just as expected, the corporations will continue to make all their money… the only one adversely affected is the casual user of the internet… please if you value the internet attempt to defeat SOPA.

  8. Government officials always stand behind the rich lobbyists. They get what they want on the backs of the people who pay for everything. Yes something should be done but why does the government have to stick their nose in to stuff that should be handled by free enterprise.

  9. Ben Cleland

    Mr. O’Reilly makes simple yet profound points in this article. To the people in support of Stop Online Piracy Act I ask: Isn’t the definition of insane “doing the things you’ve always done, yet expecting different results?” This is what many in the recording/film/corporate world are doing. SOPA is encouraging these companies and individuals to NOT innovate. Anyone see the problem here? If America is not innovating, who is going to take the lead? Is that good? Are they already? Kudos Tim on a well thought out article.

  10. George Ray Mitchell

    What our government doesn’t understand is this and its always been this way. #1 The pirates and hackers will always be several steps ahead of them. They can not stop them period. When they lock something down it just forces more pirates and hackers to come. Second pirates and hackers do it for the sport of it. They still buy stuff like anyone. #3 As long as these forms of entertainment are outrageously priced there will always be a black market. BUt bottom line is this. THe entertainment industry needs to hop to the year 2012 and stop trying to use the same tech from 1920. We are in the digital age when my home theater is much better than the crap in the main theaters and I don’t have to drop $100 to go to the movies with my wife. I don’t remember the last time I went to see a movie. I much rather watch it on netflix, iTunes or stream it over my apple tv. As far as books go. I no longer buy those either. Why? Its just more convienant to download my books or magazines through iTunes and I can look at them when ever I want to. Amazon and Apple are making boat loads of money these days because they understand the tech and where its going. All these dumb laws are going to do is move the stuff they don’t want us to the underground and guess what? We will still get to it. So its really no point. Get at the bigger issue. Trying to stop piracy is a total waste of time. LOL

  11. I am a Romanian software engineer and I pay for my books. Mr. O’Reilly, I have a present for you: a few O’Reilly books which I do not want to own anymore after your insulting comments about my people.

  12. John S Wolter

    My four Romanian friends here in the US would not agree with Tim’s poor choice of characterization. Like most in Romanians they have integrity.

    Tim’s quote “… they need to be consulting independent experts, not lobbyists…” has little chance. Elected people wake-up each day to be concerned about being re-elected. That takes citizen votes and money.

  13. Well I wanted to add that its not just people that aren’t going to pay you but poor class citizens that don’t have a nickle to give you that are struggling to pay their bills and to keep up with rising fuel costs. Increasing power bills. More and More jobs being taken away. Just here both increased by large factors. I was just wondering why they weren’t mentioned. People who download are made monsters of when in fact they give people what they pay billions for for almost free. That free advertisement can not be bought and increases their sales. Those who do download if they like it buy into it either the book or movie or at least merchandise. If a book or a movie bombs its because it sucks and would have bombed if their was no downloading at all. Theirs a reason movie makers take vacations and drive million dollor cars you know. I don’t see why they fight something so hard that INCREASES their sales. If it was taken fully away they would lose their free advertising and lose far more then they gain.

  14. Sterling Wright

    I keep hearing opponents of SOPA claim that it will stifle innovation, but I have yet to hear a single argument which explains how, *exactly*, that would happen. I just keep hearing this sound-scare thrown out into the media space.

    I genuinely would like to understand this issue. Currently, I remain neutral as I wait for someone…anyone… to clarify, with cogent and detailed arguments, the fearful claims that SOPA means “less competitiveness” “a stifling of innovation” and “a lack of support for emerging technologies.”

    I consider my interests to be entrepreneurial, content-oriented and on the forefront of tech and media innovation, and I just don’t understand how SOPA represents a threat to me– I cannot identify the threat. And, I trust that this something I *need* to understand.

    I wish someone could actually explain why I am threatened, rather than just expecting me to assume I am because someone has said so. O’Reilly has said nothing I have not already heard repeatedly, and he does no better a job of clarifying the issue than anyone else I have read.

    There is an informational Meetup on Jan 24th in DC regarding SOPA & PIPA. I certainly hope to be in town to attend. Here is the info link for anyone interested:

    ~Sterling Wright

  15. Tim used to make money off of books, and when he did he might have cared about piracy. But he now makes most of his money from such things as conferences. Including a big developers’ conference for Google. Which explains why he doesn’t (and in fact can’t) support SOPA.

  16. Wolfram Volpi

    “they need to be consulting independent experts, not lobbyists for one side or the other.”
    They should, but that won’t get them campaign contributions.

  17. Andrew Brunk

    Tim, good article! I’m a college student and a programmer and I refuse to use torrents and the like just because I choose to support the artist. I also agree with the idea that piracy is a form of advertising. I rarely buy something without first taking a look at what I’m getting. How else can someone get a good product out there so quickly without paying then through piracy?? The way the system works right now even millions of dollars spent on marketing a bad product cannot compete with a low budget good product. Let people steal my stuff because those who choose to become loyal supporters need to see the product before they’ll buy in.

    • Sure, but the problem is different for every product and the possibile situations too.
      If the owner of a top-ranked web-site steal this page (and other blog pages) and put on line on his web site, he can place them at the top of the same search (e.g. in Google). Then he could go to advertisers of other (may be poor-quality) products and tell them to pay the same (or more) to get their wares shown beside this text and comments, all this because more people could reach and read the same page.
      If you are really going to tell us where you store your software, I’m sure someone in the web can draw out the source-codes and sell them with a different trademark.
      Maybe piracy would also promote but are you sure is the kind of promotion you like?
      There are people robbing something to try it, others to get it because they have no money, but many do that to sell your good away and maybe provided with a different trademark. If they have a good re-seller and a good product, they can get a lot of money: One day you could enter a software-house to get a job and could find your product sold for lot of money.
      This is not the world I would like to live in. You can find stealer everywhere, but it is not the right thing to make business with them.

  18. Christopher Williams

    When I first started seeing the TV ads urging people to fight piracy by supporting anti-piracy Gov’t legislation, I knew the whole thing was blown way out of proportion. Have you seen these ads? Haha, who writes this stuff? This truly is the govt’s way of spreading the Online Terrorism hype to Americans.

  19. Felix Penaroll

    ok people lets boycott the company that support sopa lets boycutt nike lets boy cutt wallmart lets bycutt time warner cable they want to stick it to us lets stick it to them iam disconecting my time wagner cable they can suck my dick fuckin secret comunists

  20. I live in Italy and I really can’t get fresh informations about SOPA except that it better protects copyrighted work. Well! There are not only big companies on the market; people not respecting copyright can keep lot of little publishers off the market simply copying its works.
    In my mind there are lot of people not from the ‘blog-generation’, that publish articles online since when you coldn’t easily do it without handling HTML, CSS. If they are not journalists they can’t publish on a newspaper. They are simply web professionals whose hope is to get money from their work: they are web _publishers_.
    Instead the blog and social-media generation is mostly composed of people who already has their job and also publish texts in internet to became famous: professors, professionals, journalists and simply citizens. To succeed in their goal they need to share the best resources available. They can’t understand the reasons of little publishers. A journalist who will be able to take up a good article from a blog, or site and publish on a newspaper will be a successfull journalist and the little web-publishers simply a plagiarist.
    If a little publisher don’t want to share his generic ‘wares’ does not spread them by social media, but, you can see, some great web companies are improving their social war-machines to let people infringe the rules and take part to this wide game. It’s obvious they could not like SOPA. But respecting the rules is a major issue to grant we have a free-trade, in other case the biggest companies get all the market keeping little web-publishers off.

  21. I can’t understand why politicians draft these laws against public interest. Is it so difficult to get advice of real experts and walk away of lobbyists?
    I totally agree with Tim.

  22. I am not poor, but why should I buy O’Reilly’s books? He’s rich anyway. I just Torrented a whole collection of O’Reilly from Europe. Good thing there’s no SOPA.

  23. If O’Reilly produced anything that was pop-culture oriented, instead of computer books with great covers – then maybe he would really feel the wrath of piracy.

    The point that comes to my mind is that we have a government that did virtually nothing to help the recording industry shut down the music sharing software one by one over a decade. The industry had to do it themselves. It turns out that nobody really cares if your stuff is being stolen, you have to police it yourself thru the courts. Governments have done little for the movie industry, and nothing for the software industry.

    Then along came WikiLeaks, and the US government got to feel the wrath of unauthorized distribution that they still have no way to stop. So, I think that the US government is seeing that the wild-wild-west aspect of file sharing is now something that they care about. I’m betting that some sort of anti-piracy laws will eventually prevail.

    I wonder what it was like when people with cars were not required to have automobile insurance, and reckless & damaging behavior was tolerated for a while… but later ended. Like it or not, some sort or orderly or disorderly lawmaking will come to the internet.

  24. These are all good reasons to oppose SOPA. The one that is much more important to me, though, is the very real possibility that it can be used to go after small blogs and businesses and purge them from the Internet. THAT is the largest threat to any law like this.

    • It will start with piracy as an excuse, but the real reason behind all this bullshit is having the right to spy on whatever we do on the internet (not like they are not doing it already but with this law they will have an excuse).

  25. David Acosta Juan

    The attempts at censorship of the Internet will continue, with different arguments being used as a justification. The Arab Spring was a sign of what can happen when people are able to communicate their message, and the governments around the world took very good notice of that.