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Gaiman: SOPA and PIPA are on the wrong side of history

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Author Neil Gaiman

The twin anti-piracy threats that were being considered by Congress — the SOPA bill in the House and the PIPA legislation in the Senate — have been put aside due to the storm of controversy and criticism they sparked. But the media and entertainment industries are unlikely to give up their battle so easily, author Neil Gaiman said in an interview this week, even though what they’re trying to do amounts to “trying to put genies back in bottles.” Gaiman, who recently signed an open letter protesting SOPA with over a dozen other prominent artists, says the content industries have to recognize the Internet has changed the media landscape just as fundamentally as Gutenberg’s printing press did.

Gaiman is probably best-known for his comics and graphic novels — including the Sandman series — as well as the novels American Gods and Coraline, and the screenplay for the film Beowulf. Although British-born, he lives in Minnesota with his wife, musician Amanda Palmer. In the interview, Gaiman said as someone who creates books and screenplays and other content, he is somewhat conflicted about what the Internet and digital media have done to traditional businesses like books and movies:

I as a creator kind of missed out on the DVD era, which is kind of sad, because I would likely be so much richer if I hadn’t — but that era was really such a tiny fragment of time, really just an eye-blink in the scheme of things, in which Hollywood was able to sell a physical object to people that contained content.

I think people in Hollywood are convinced that people would suddenly start buying DVDs again if only they could stop all this peer-to-peer file sharing and so on. They just are fundamentally missing the point… genies don’t go back in bottles once they’re out.

Gaiman said the Internet represents a fundamental change that is altering the competitive landscape for virtually every business whose product can be digitized and uploaded, and they need to adapt or perish. “Gutenberg put an awful lot of scribes out of work too,” the author said. “They had debates back then that seem nonsensical now, like the debate about the evils of printing bibles that anyone could read, rather than having them interpreted for them by monks and priests.”

That disruption isn’t good or bad, Gaiman said, “it just is. It’s a fact of life now.” And while legislators will no doubt continue to push forward with laws like SOPA and PIPA, he said, they won’t be able to turn back the clock to a time before the Internet was invented. In a video interview he recorded last year for the Open Rights Group, which is embedded below, Gaiman talked about how he was initially incensed about people pirating his work, but eventually came to the realization that they were actually promoting his work, and he was selling more in countries where his books were pirated.

Gaiman said in his interview with GigaOM that the biggest single change the Internet has sparked is an explosion of information — and that has been both good and bad. It’s good because anyone can reach an audience, he said, but it can also be bad because there is so much noise, and it’s hard to find the good content in that sea of information:

The biggest change between the 20th century and the 21st is that all of the gatekeepers are going away. For the first million years or so of humanity, information was incredibly scarce, and it was an incredibly powerful thing that people devoted their entire lives to uncovering… but somewhere around 1997 it changed, and we moved from famine to glut.

I read somewhere that there were more books published in a week than there were published in all of 1950, or something like that. Is that a good thing? I’m not sure. It makes it harder to find the things that you like… It’s now the job of the crowd and the hive mind to do that.

And while SOPA and PIPA proponents see only the negatives of the Internet and content sharing, there are some positives as well, Gaiman said — including the ability any artist has to reach an audience with their work. The author described how he and his wife wanted to record part of a performance tour they were on, and set up a donation through the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform. “We asked for $20,000, because that was the absolute minimum we needed to do it, and we wound up with $133,000,” he said. “That showed me there was this completely different way of monetizing something.”

That kind of phenomenon allows creators to reach their fans directly, without having to go through a traditional middleman, Gaiman said — and that obviously makes industries that are composed primarily of middlemen rather nervous. But while they will undoubtedly continue to fight for laws like SOPA and PIPA, the author said they are “fighting on the wrong side of history.” At some point, “It’s like King Canute railing against the waves; the waves will continue to come in, and the landscape will continue to change.”

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy Kyle Cassidy via Wikimedia Commons

14 Responses to “Gaiman: SOPA and PIPA are on the wrong side of history”

  1. Holland

    Neil Gaiman is a hack writer who says a lot of stupid things because he is a rich Scientologist who owns G&G Vitamin Co. which pulls in 6 million a year. Gaiman doesn’t need to make money via his art and no one buys his lousy books anyway. He and his idiotic wife, Amanda Palmer, who was dropped by her record company (Listen to her and you’ll see why) spend their time promoting non events like their amateur tour. Why are you talking to this clown?

  2. This is only if you believe SOPA and PIPA at face value. But, as we’ve learned by most laws enacted by Big Government. There’s already a back door to get them what they are really after. Censorship and a internet KILL switch in the case the common people decide against government corruption and rise up.

  3. The genie has, historically, been put back in the bottle many, many times. Ask any activist from the 1970s if he could have ever thought the steps ahead made regarding workers’ rights could disappear so fast. We’re essentially going back to early Industrial Revolution status. Ask anyone who participated in the cultural upheaval of the early ’60s if he could have ever though everything they had attained could be destroyed in less than 20 years. Ask any Iranian of Afghan woman if she could ever imagine going back to having essentially no rights.
    It can happen and it is happening now. The internet is even on less solid grounds, because once you have the ISP by the balls, it’s over.

    • Carlos Marrero

      no offense, but looking historically at revolutionary changes like guttenberg/luther or the industrial revolution, the things you speak of are not genies, they’re more like tarot card readers :) as far as afghan/iranian women, their culture has not yet ever changed to women having rights being a norm. i’d say they’ve had “hiccups of change” but the status quo has not changed to freedom for both sexes like in the west.

    • Doc Gonzo

      From a historical perspective the revolutions caused by guttenberg/luther & french revolution, the things you speak of aren’t genies, more tarot card readers :) As for the Iranian and Afghan women, their Islamic culture had never been changed to accept women as equals. Any progress was really more a “hiccup of change.”
      The book to read is “Dawn to Decadence-500 Years of Western Cultural History”

  4. Another thing we sometimes forget is that my generation, in their 40s now used to tape our favorite songs on cassettes and sometimes give them to friends. We didn’t know about copyrights but on the other side of things, this is how I got to learn about new bands in the 80s who eventually became huge. In other words, that tiny little cassette made me buy more albums and go to concert.

    The newer generations are probably not that different also. By “sharing” music with others, they turn on people to music they might not have heard.

    In the end, business 1.0 is well over and business 2.0 is the way to go forward. Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to extinction. Hollywood and the music industry need to wake up. I’m not a criminal. I don’t go on p2p to swap music or rip it, so don’t treat me like that in order to curb a small percentage. It just won’t work.

      • msbpodcast

        I don’t expect media companies to ever get it.

        We are witnessing an “Erie-Bucyrus” moment when the world is changing over to backhoes and the old steam shovel maker is migrating to an ever smaller market to supply even rarer sales of the bigger and bigger bucket loaders.

    • This is true. The copyright wars became completely hysterical. Nothing has changed. I was always copying my friends’cassettes, or copied mine for them (8th copy..) when I was in high school and college. Everybody was. I never saw an original cassette other than in store. I thought that people who bought the pretty original cassettes were just snobs, because it never even occurred to me that there could be something wrong with copying them. I also didn’t know about copyright. Then when I started making money, I started purchasing CDs with those songs that I knew, because I wanted nice sound and could afford it. But would I spend money on the CDs if I wouldn’t have liked the songs in the first place? Of course not!

    • msbpodcast

      people stuck in old-line thinking simply don’t know to adapt to … technology

      Its as much a failure of observation as it is a failure of imagination.

      The distribution of wealth in the world is much more concentrated than it was, meaning that as the 1% got richer fast, the 99% got poorer faster.

      If you’re relying for profit on the distribution of IP, you’ve noticed that profits from your private channels aren’t rising as fast as your costs.

      The causes for this are:
      • the complex interplay of market forces,
      • the decrease of the effectiveness of multipliers, such as computers and the internet, as they become universally adopted,
      • the increase of possible outlets for media as the internet enables indie producers to potentially reach as many people as are reached through the old media,
      • the increase in funding options available to indie media producers,
      • the result of the changes wrought in the patterns of consumption as the world gets poorer as a result of the rich getting richer, which shrinks the pool of people who are able or even willing to buy your media products,
      • piracy. (one word answer are so much easier to invoke.)

      So, old media, you’ve arrived at piracy, despite the evidence that the world is going on without you.

      There have already been successes, specially in the indie audio sphere, where the artist IS the producer and the interference of mega-corporations in order to maximize profitability aren’t welcome.

  5. Dominique

    The Japanese have known for years that things like doshinji (fan based works of literature that get sold for profit) help the original works get sold. Here in America they would get sued so fast for infringement.

  6. Reblogged this on Zombies Ate Your Brains and commented:
    I think people need to accept the fact that technology has changed media.And the Internet is just one of the tools for helping the entertainment business advertise their work. People do make legal purchases after they have seen it on Youtube or after downloading it.I agree that there should be restrictions, very true especially for the music industry.But to change the whole of the Internet is very unacceptable.SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA will not force people into buying stuff. Two reasons: One,sometimes they are unreasonably priced. Not everyone, including myself who lives outside of America and the UK, cannot afford just splurging money on stuff that we love. We work for it, we cut our budget for it, just to buy a single item. If it is reasonably priced, perhaps we will be able to buy whatever it is that they are selling. This brings me to my second point, how will we know if it is worth saving for. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t just watch it for free then decide not to buy anything related to it, but if censorship goes to websites that advertise it, like Youtube, Tumblr, or Twitter, how would we know that stuff like these exists in the first place.
    Times are changing, and people need to adapt. If technology can help make life easier at work, or in school, then it can definitely help the entertainment business. Neil Gaiman said, as it is written also in the article here, that those who pirated his work actually promoted his work, and that he is selling more in countries that pirated them, this is actually very true, because people go to desperate lengths just to get a hold of the original, this is after seeing it online first.
    The Internet is an easy way to get an audience, for charities or for a new show. This is true for up and coming artists and writers as well, killing that avenue is killing opportunities. We live on the Internet now, a digitized world, it is time to learn how to maximize it.