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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. DMalenfant

    I never heard of Tim O’Reilly before this PIPA and SOPA thing came around, and I wanted to read what he had to say, and you all know what? He is 100% correct.
    Ever heard of Steam? Steam is itunes for video games (actually Steam cloud came out before itunes) and I don’t consider myself a “gamer” but I have over 100 games because they are so affordable now. Before I used to pirate games because they are so expensive (no sorry, video games are not worth over 30 dollars). I also pirated video games because I bought few that looked great, but when played where horrible. Not to mention I bought 1 where the anti-piracy program stopped me from playing the game I legally bought because it was detecting another program it did not like.

  2. Kolohex Buhh

    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.

  3. The tech industry isn’t lobbying this?

    oh PLEASE…

    If google can block access to child pron and illegal weapons information and other illegal activity (and they can, and do) they can block access to torrent sites and piracy.
    They don’t WANT to, so they say the requirement would be “onerous”.
    Traffic is traffic to them. Their “content” is other people’s livelihoods, being taken without permission.

    SOPA would be unnecessary if google et al would simply do what’s right without being forced.


      It’s not Google place to decide what I should and should not see online. It’s not Google job to monitor what people are downloading, legal or otherwise Google should not have to take the financial cost to prevent illegal downloads so that others can make money. Truly think about it this way if you owned a business and where told you had to hire X about more employees so a nether businesses would lose less money is that fair?

      Instead businesses that are so called losing money based on piracy should rethink their prices and what value they are giving you for it. I for one like the convenience of having moves on my pc and playing them to my tv but will never understand why it cost me the same amount to buy a movie in store where their is the extra cost of the dvd the case the shipping to get it to the store and a downloaded copy from zune where their is no extra cost why not pass that savings on to your customers.

  4. Ask your self this? We did fine without craigslist and all of them. The internet has put so many people out of business. there is so much fraud. Its out of think these people that run goodle or craigslist really care about you? Come on American wake up. The country is going to shit. we should keep money in our towns we live in.

  5. I am a young,white,single female mother of 3 plus 1 stepson who I also have raised mainly alone,times r tough these days,to go driving from place,to place filling out job applications,noone can afford the gas. So some women such as myself only have things like these to count on. To find jobs,child care,housing,utility bill help,a friend! I use this site alot,for many reasons,main reason is to help me find higher paying jobs,so I can someday get my children,n I,out of poverty!! So don’t take something away many already count on for everyday life!!!

  6. It sucks big companies are trying to get rid of the most resourceful places we have to use. Whether its saving money finding information or buying cheaper parts or cars!!!

  7. I am against SOPA and PIPA, but piracy is real and hurts the producers of content. Book piracy is different from music or video piracy. A cd or DVD can easily be ripped and distributed to millions, while a physical book would need to be scanned, and- despite the enthusiasm of Kindle and Nook readers- most people don’t have eBooks. As a college student, the majority of my friends regularly freely acquire full albums of music, and burn DVDs to share with friends. My friends aren’t the Romanian under-served fringe, they’re middle class young Americans, depending on an increasing sense of entitlement that everything be free.

  8. Dropping a bomb here:
    If SOPA included a provision that ANY company legaly selling anything, and that does not honor the implied or real contract with the client (e.g. an entertainment industry giant selling tickets to a film which is not entertaining), the government would have to shut down the company and distribute the proceeds to its customers.
    Oh, and lets start with Monsanto since they have more than once broken the law.

  9. Michael Snyder

    a company may spend millions on advertising and completely miss that piracy is the best advertising you can get. If someone takes the time to steal your product, then it is probably worth having. Sure, it may be three versions later before they buy it, but the reason they know how to use it and want to buy it is because they used the free version first.

    Some piracy/advertising is clearly good for companies.

  10. I’ve heard that wikipedia won’t be available for a day to raise awareness about potential impact of SOPA. I would recommend the major search engines to shut down for 12 hours with a message like this: as the search results may contain pointers to the copyrighted material, searching has been turned off to avoid potential lawsuits related to SOPA. <my English is far from perfect, but the general idea should be clear. Even 6 hour backout – if all major players agree to do that – would make a huge impact.

    • Shut down google,bing,wikipedia, twitter for 12 hours. That my friend is a great idea. People will get the point if it affects them. Want to read a free book- go to the public library. Are libraries pirating books and movies? No, they are buying them and sharing the information to subscribers that have a library card. Hey, lets shut them down too.


      I agree with you a little however I am a technical support agent and 12hrs without Google would make a very hard day. But I do agree it would put the point across. But I don’t think BING would go for it as I would bet Microsoft is loving the idea of SOPA