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What does a kid’s birthday cake have to do with SOPA?

While everyone from Wikipedia to Reddit was busy turning their sites black to protest the twin anti-piracy bills SOPA and PIPA, or organizing marches in the streets of New York, media theorist and author Clay Shirky was at the offices of TED — the non-profit behind the TED conferences — giving a talk on why these two pieces of legislation are so bad. His analysis started off with a story about a local mom-and-pop bakery in his former Brooklyn neighborhood that did a big business making specialty cakes for kids’ birthday parties. What does that have to do with piracy and copyright infringement? More than you might think.

Shirky explains in the video (which is embedded below) that this mom-and-pop bakery makes the kind of birthday cake that lets you print a custom image on top, so your child can have a cake with a Smurf or Mickey Mouse or some other cartoon character on it. In addition to pre-made versions, the shop would also spray-paint a child’s hand-drawn image of these cartoons on the cake if a customer brought one in. At some point, however, Shirky says the shop announced that it would no longer do this. Why? Because spray-painting a hand-drawn picture of Mickey Mouse on a cake in icing sugar is copyright infringement.

Critics of this argument will probably point out that SOPA and PIPA don’t say anything about cake-decorating practices (at least as far as I know — that might be in one of the amendments). Instead, proponents of the legislation say that the bills are designed to go after “rogue” foreign websites that traffic in large volumes of copyright infringing movies, TV shows, software and other products, something Hollywood and the media and entertainment industries say is costing them hundreds of billions of dollars a year (although there is much dispute about the truth of those figures).

Shirky’s point in using the cake example is that SOPA and PIPA are just the latest evolution — the “next turn of this particular screw” — in an ongoing attempt by media giants to outlaw copying and sharing of their content. As Shirky notes, this battle goes back more than 20 years to the Audio Home Recording Act, and after that the war against the videotape business, and then the MP3 player, and so on — all the way up to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in 1998.

What all of these laws and lobbying have done, Shirky argues, is to “raise the cost of copyright compliance to the point where people simply get out of the business” of offering certain services — such as custom cake decorating — because they are afraid they will be sued, and can’t afford to police their content. And the implications of that could have far-reaching effects on our culture, in an age when digital mashups and remixes and user-generated content of all kinds could potentially become illegal.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Sugar Daze

4 Responses to “What does a kid’s birthday cake have to do with SOPA?”

  1. Clay’s very smart, passionate and articulate. In this case, his articulateness and passion are blinding viewers to the fallacy in his argument. His logic is “We like to share, so a legislation that subjects sharing to a test of whether the sharer has a right to share someone else’s content without that content owner’s permission must be wrong, bad and stopped.” By talking about kids and birthday cakes, he’s using the age-old trick of tugging at our heart strings with an extreme case. Shame on media companies if they stop kids from putting cartoon images on their birthday cakes. But that’s not what the media companies are trying to fight in a way that’s life or death for them: it’s the operation in China or Russia that steals a digital version of the latest $200M-cost film like a Harry Potter 7.2 or an MI4, puts it on a website and streams it to viewers all over the world, robbing the artists who made the film from the fair compensation they are due. We’re getting to a situation where Silicon Valley, yes a fountain of innovation but last time I checked not entitled or authorized to rule the world, seeing itself as the appropriate decision-maker over all other industries that rely on technology.

  2. Wazir Nurani

    When I was a kid, there was a contest in my school run by a local car dealer. The aim was for an elementary school student to design an ad for the car dealership, and the winner would have the ad printed in the local paper. I designed a very crude (but somewhat humorous cartoon of a man standing irate outside of his smoking clunker of a crumbling car with the slogan underneath him: “Don’t get bothered by this deal; buy a Fischer Oldsmobile.” I thought it looked good and that I had a shot at winning. Instead, my classmate Steve won with a cartoon of Fred Flintstone endorsing the dealer. As good a likeness as it was, I didn’t think it was fair that he got to win with a trademarked character. Even as a kid, I understood that, without the right licensing, such an ad was in violation of copyright infringement. (Dammit, I still say I shoulda won.)