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Why I’m fighting SOPA: We need a solution, but a better solution

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FightThe current SOPA legislation, which is being debated everywhere from Capitol Hill to the Hollywood Hills, is not the answer that creative rights holders — nor advocates of the DMCA and other free internet policy proponents — are seeking. Instead, we need to find a more elegant middle ground, with policy that encourages online creativity and economic growth while also protecting the intellectual property of musicians, filmmakers, and others. It’s not as exciting to advocate for a compromise, but that’s what we need.

Artists are entrepreneurs, too, and deserve to be able to monetize their work

SOPA is clearly too extreme to be a practical solution, and it threatens core pieces of what make the Web great. In spite of even the best-intentioned efforts of those in the film and music industries, I do not expect this legislation to pass. Still, the issues that the act seeks to address are very real, and the impact of non-action will continue to affect those of us in film, music and television. Those of us who are so up in arms about SOPA also risk forgetting that the underlying issues are nonetheless quite pressing — not just for the big media companies, labels and studios, but for the artists who produce great content, and whose livelihoods depend on viable monetization of their commercial work.

We forget that artists are entrepreneurs, too — every new record, and every new film production is its own startup, so to speak. Lost in all of the anti-SOPA backlash (whether you agree with it or not) is the fact that these artist-entrepreneurs create incredible value every day, and deserve much better from all of us. What if your proprietary source code was stolen, and shared freely with anyone? What about your underlying data? What about your breakthrough algorithm?

The technology industry has progressive cultural habits like open-sourcing that have proved out new modes of ownership, and community. Artists from Radiohead to Louis C.K. have taken notice, and experimented with radical new distribution models that challenge traditional notions of “free” and “commercial.” But technology also has more patent warfare than we know what to do with, not to mention uniformly sharp competition. Words like “moat” and “proprietary” are music to any VC’s ears.

The “discovery” benefit doesn’t actually translate to profits

The Internet is neither a panacea nor an imminent danger — it produces enormous benefits, and some unfortunate byproduct. We need to seize opportunity and mitigate risk simultaneously. SOPA swings the pendulum too far to one side. But this issue isn’t going away, either.


Because the “discovery” benefits, of free-flowing music, film, and TV, contrary to popular belief, do not generally trickle down to the actual artists who create these works. This is important to understand. There are exceptions, of course, breakout hits and outliers. But for most artists, the magic hand of discovery is never realized. New fans do not in fact materialize out of the Internet and start paying for content, as if on cue.

As general manager of Austin City Limits, I live this reality day in and day out. We’re a nonprofit, and for us and the artists we diligently work with to create unforgettable musical experiences, the discovery argument rings hollow in practice. The benefits are more directly realized by marketing departments, maybe, and top artists who are already trending. Stating that a Lily Allen or Arctic Monkeys were “discovered” or  that they “broke” via the Internet is a convenient copy point in a label-written artist bio, but for each of these valid success stories, there are thousands of artists losing the income necessary for them to live and dedicate themselves to their craft.  For every pirated download or freely shared file, there is not in fact a new fan created who will someday purchase a concert ticket or t-shirt.

Don’t believe me? Read this article and absorb the research. Take for example the number of record labels that have been shuttered, or the large number of layoffs at the music companies that are still in business, or the statistics showing the drastic decline in sales over the last 10 years  — it’s apparent that free online music discovery does not generate new fans — at least not fans who are interested in making purchases.

Now, some may say that that’s part of the creative destruction of the old music industry model, the big business run by a few major labels crumbling as a new model of all-digital distribution takes its place. That may be the case, but the artists don’t make money off the new model, either. In Forrester’s report, cited in the same article, it found that “just 44% of U.S. Internet users and 64% of Americans who buy digital music think that music is worth paying for.”

We do need reform, but we need the right reform

As an artist-first company, Austin City Limits endeavors to bring the highest quality live music programming to our weekly television audience. Beyond television, we are always looking at new ways to share the Austin City Limits experience with as many fans as possible through online and mobile technologies. We’re innovating on a lot of different fronts and 2012 will be a groundbreaking year for us. Certainly, innovation and reinvesting in great experiences is part of the path forward. And the proposed SOPA legislation, while targeting pirates, will also threaten the ability for legitimate content producers to innovate and bring great experiences to their respective audiences.

But at the same time, if zero limitations are put on the sharing of creative intellectual property — the internet will continue to harm artists, and the people and companies that support them, by hobbling their ability to be fairly compensated for their talents and work. The future of artists and filmmakers lies in the balance.

Legislation that chokes out the same creative flame that it seeks to protect is not the answer, but we’ve got to find some middle ground. The two extreme points of view being represented right now — on one hand, taking over the internet as regulatory infrastructure and punishing many for the acts of a few — and on the other, advocating royalty-free access with legal impunity under a deceptive “free and open” ethos — well, neither is going to work.

For those protesting SOPA for its shortcomings — you are absolutely right. But also know that reform needs to come, and will come, and that we’d all do well to collaborate and shape the right policy, instead of watching, and commentating.

Tom Gimbel is the general manager of Austin City Limits, the award-winning KLRU produced music television show.  Prior to joining ACL, Gimbel’s career includes more than 20 years in the music industry including senior positions at Arista Records and as serving an artist manager at High Wire Music.  In 2009, Gimbel founded Clatterhead, a social media marketing company.

Image courtesy of Flickr user BurgTender.

18 Responses to “Why I’m fighting SOPA: We need a solution, but a better solution”

  1. No US law will stop piracy, neither will the best DRM solution. The reason is simple. Hollywood has been looking at its belly for the last 30 years and not asking its customers what they want. Nobody was waiting for Blueray. People want to see and hear content on the go, when they want (not according to somebody’s else schedule), on any device, etc. Some can see the same content hundreds of time, e.g. Children, most want to see it only once. Distribution costs have gone down every year but Hollywood has incremented prices every time, LP->CD, VHS->DVD->Blueray. Discovery costs of artists have gone down as well with crowd sourcing, social networking and recommendation engines. Movies could be paid by collective investment.

    Instead Hollywood is the place with more Bentleys, Rolls and Ferrari, I have seen and I have been in Monaco, NY, London, Switzerland, Paris, Moskou, etc.
    Owners were not great looking superstars but mostly old ugly men. No other industry can allow not to listen to its customers for 15-20 years and live in total luxury.

    Only in the US you have all you can eat services like Netflix. The industry should work with low-priced all you can eat models and focus on selling it to every household in the world instead of predatory piece pricing for the happy few.

    The sooner Hollywood accepts this new reality the better. They might have to trade their Ferrari for a BWM 7 or Mercedes S but this would just align them with all established industries in the world…

    • toddrick

      Let me guess. You watched “The Dark Knight” on your mobile telephone. If you did then you missed out on the terrific experience that Blu-ray (not blueray) discs afford. Personally I have little interest in watching movies on the go. I want to be comfortable and with a high quality source and display. A lot of effort when into making a movie of that quality; visuals, stunts, writing, filming, location, sets, etcetera. Those people should be compensated accordingly. And yes some great work has been done on the cheap. I will agree that CDs were over priced but there was also a cost in developing the new media and players.

      • Sorry for misspelling Blu-ray. English is not my mother tongue but I speak 5 languages. And how many do you?
        You are able to watch movies perfectly on a tablet while waiting in the airport. Unfortunately smart Hollywood did not think about devices not having a DVD drive.
        Yes it takes a lot of money to make blockbusters and who does the investment should get a reward. However Hollywood would do a lot better if they sold digitally downloadable versions for $0.1-$1 each instead of $15-50. They would like sell millions more and get equal profits because you would not bother to find a pirate copy.

  2. If the content were available drm free in my region, I’d pay for it. I download from other sites BECAUSE IT IS NOT AVaILABLE to me legally any other way. The cant claim a list sale if they wont sell it to me.

  3. Matt Hickman

    the shameful attempt of the content cartel to buy these laws into existence can be compared to Crédit Mobilier and Teapot Dome. At least this attempt failed.

    Except that ACTA was signed by the current administration, is being rammed down the throats of our allies and the DoJ is arresting innocent people.

    The Obama administration needs to clear its name by repudiating ACTA and refusing to continue act as the hired muscle for the Hollywood Media Mafia in intimidating allies, arresting and threatening honest businessmen.

  4. If the entertainment industry is suffering so from piracy, how is it that they could afford the 97 million dollars they have spent over the last year in trying to get these laws past? This kind of checkbook politics is unseemly and shameful

  5. Tetracycloide

    We need to see actual evidence of damage being done before we can consider a compromise. Without actual harm there’s nothing to compromise over since there’s no reason to do anything. Representatives from the MPAA the RIAA aka Big Content in addition to congressional representatives and this writer continue to make this assumption that damage exists a priori without actually demonstrating any evidence of damage.

    • “Make good stuff, then make it easy for people to buy it. There’s your anti-piracy plan. The big content companies are TERRIBLE at doing both of these things, so it’s no wonder they’re not doing so well in the current environment.” (Jonathan Coulton,

      (For anyone who doesn’t know: Coulton is an independent musician who is doing quite well in the current environment, by making good stuff, making it easy for people to buy it, and, yes, getting discovered on the Internet.)

      • Tom Gimbel

        I support Jonathan Coulton and other independent artists who are doing well. It’s just tough to compete with “free.” I’m sure Coulton -although making a good living- wouldn’t argue against reasonable measures that would allow him to be compensated a little more fairly for his talents.

      • Darken Aoc Rahl

        Exactly. Steam is the largest distributor of video games online. They say that piracy is almost always a service problem not a pricing problem. They provide a killer service that people want that blows pirates service away and people pay for it. The top entertainment companies like Viacom, Disney, Time Warner instead of creating a service that people WANT instead would like to force people into a service that matches their draconian old models they have been using for years.

        The end purpose of this bill is not to protect anyone from piracy its to squelch places that independence companies, artists etc can get their product to the public by claiming that these same places are potential places for piracy. Put simply allow these corporations to censor the little guys and you kill innovation and allow them to have a competition free market.

    • This. Obviously content piracy exists at some level, but how much of that is lost revenue or some party illegally profiting on someone else’s work?

      Which brings up an understated bit of this conversation… content owners have *already* been afforded considerable, additional legal weaponry. There is no deficiency here. Anything more is overdoing it, as there will always be a tiny handful of people that skirt the system.

    • Tom Gimbel

      Tetra — thank you for your comment. Having worked in the music industry, I’ve seen so many friends lose their jobs through layoffs or when whole companies are shuttered. Not to say that these companies do share some responsibility for their demise, but to see friends – folks with families who depend on them – lose jobs is the “actual evidence of damage being done” to me.

    • jasprice

      I think the damages are evident in amount of quality movies and music that has been released over the last few years. You can see it at every level of both industries. Whether the consumer knows it or not, the bigger movie studios (or production houses) and bigger record labels have their hand in the distribution and funding of smaller releases (smaller being the bigger indie movie production companies and indie record labels). But, regardless of “Big Content”, even the smaller companies are finding it harder to survive today. Now, maybe that doesn’t matter to you but it matters to a lot of people and the more the system gets deteriorated the more we suffer as a culture. Art is important to society. And commerce is important to the people who back it – this goes for all forms of media. Artistic creativity feeds off of what came before them. While the systems of distribution to consumers or to the people who appreciate that particular artform are slowly devolving we are depriving the consumers that could soon be the creators of that particular medium. Hell, even the fine arts are suffering due to lack of people to back them. The big money donors only want to put their money behind the big productions or the big artists who they deem to be the next “it” in the art world. The benefactors of big money families like the paparazzi more than they like the arts. Why help a budding Basquiat when you can be throwing big parties that Entertainment Tonight will cover.

      I don’t think the author was overreaching in calling for some sort of compromise. In fact, that’s what needs to happen next. Now, the RIAA are like the Keystone Kops so they’re harmless. I’m not worried about them. But the MPAA… They are headed by former senator Christopher Dodd. He has the political capital in Washington to take this further if he gets ornery. In the meantime I’m sure they’re just letting this die down a little bit while they circle the wagons. I’ve heard talks them getting states to take this on. Right now, states are begging Hollywood to film stuff in their states so they can generate the revenue for businesses. All Hollywood needs to do is start lobbying states. They have the money, they have the angles to withhold spending in particular states. Could your state be in jeopardy? Could mine? Probably. But I don’t want to see a single citizen be restricted from the internet. Remember, the internet is still in its infancy. There is still a lot of evolving or devolving to be done.

      Now, in full disclosure, I am a friend of Tom’s and work in the music industry. I am against SOPA/PIPA. I honestly think there needs to be a compromise and it does need to be done outside of the Washington vacuum. What could be scary is that the compromise could end up being done between Washington and the big internet players. I think Facebook, Google, and others have shown that their interests are more in line with big business than it is with the people that consume their products – us, the people.

      Art vs. Commerce has always been there but the reality is that, to an extent, commerce needs to be there to a certain extent. I haven’t seen that many rich people that are good at making music and movies. It takes a lot of people working for them to make good movies and music.