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