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

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.