With the massive SOPA/PIPA website content blackout on January 18th (including major sites such as Wikipedia), the general public suddenly became far more educated on digital freedom issues.

The music and movie industry has amassed a fortune in the last 50 years selling music and movies before the dawn of the Internet. Back then, if you wanted music, you had to buy it on some physical medium such as a cassette tape or CD. Similarly, if you wanted to see a movie, you went to the movie theatre and then bought the VHS tape or DVD 6 months later.

In the 1980s, we started copying songs from one tape to another (called “mix tapes”), and we copied one VHS tape to another using 2 VCRs. The music and movie industries saw each copy as one less sale that they could have made, and labelled it “piracy” (as if copying a song was similar to pillaging a ship). In the end, a small surcharge was placed on each blank cassette tape and blank VHS tape to cover these horrible acts of piracy (this fee was paid by the manufacturer, so you never saw it, but you silently paid for it).

In the 1990s, computers became mainstream - by the late 1990s, most people with a computer could copy CDs and DVDs (called “ripping”) as well as make their own compilations. The following iMac ad sums it up nicely:


The music and movie industries responded by adding encryption to their media (this is why Blueray is pushed today) - but all encryption eventually gets cracked (in most cases it is cracked very quickly).

About the same time, CDs were largely replaced by MP3 players (e.g. the iPod) and today people download pretty much all of their music. They aren’t willing to spend $20 on a CD that has maybe 2 good songs on it - instead, they’ll pay $0.99 for each of those 2 songs on the iTunes store. It’s not a bad thing at all - technology has allowed us to buy only the good songs and listen to them on a high-capacity portable device. Thank you technology!

On the movie side, computers of the 2000-era have become so advanced, that digital playback and processing are cheaply available. You can do stuff today with a cheap $300 PC that you couldn’t do with a $80,000 SGI computer back in the 1990s. Consequently, sharing, manipulating, and viewing movies is incredibly easy. Why bother buying a movie or spending $20 to see it in the movie theatre if it is no good? And there are a lot of crap movies out there. What most people do today is download the movie, watch it, and if it is good, they’ll go to see it on the big screen. They may even buy it afterwards, or watch it in digital format from some service (e.g. Netflix). Just as technology has evolved how we interact with music, it has also evolved how we interact with movies… a good way.

The problem? The massively rich music and movie industries are pissed. They want to go back to the 1970s when the only way to get a song or movie was to buy it. They’ve tried to curb piracy by adding encryption. They’ve tried to curb piracy with ridiculous media campaigns. And they’ve tried to curb piracy by suing 10-year-old girls and 80-year-old grannies using the Movie Picture Association of America (MPAA). All of it has failed.

If only they tried to change their business model to suit the needs of people and their technology today. Steve Jobs laid a framework for this, and was extremely successful in showing the music industry that they can make money if they cater to the peoples needs today (he pioneered the $0.99/song thing with iTunes with great resistance from the music industry, which eventually relented).

But instead, the music and movie industries want to continue waging copyright war.

It’s sad really - copyright was designed hundreds of years ago as something to protect a poor author from getting ripped off by copycats. Today, copyright is used by large media corporations to sue poor people.

And the latest part of this copyright battle involves these big media corporations paying for lobbyists in the government to pass draconian bills that give more rights for companies to sue people and control the Internet.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was the first of these back in 1998 that gave big media corporations the ability to sue anyone and everyone. It was nicknamed “the Disney act” because Disney paid for many of the lobbyists who passed the act (Mickey Mouse’s copyright was about to expire ;-). The DMCA has been widely criticized since, especially since it was passed “silently” with little outside involvement. In fact, organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have since been formed to fight the injustices caused by this act and educate the public about why it is bad.

Now, it is 2012, and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) are the latest versions of the DMCA, but far far worse. They essentially give those big media corporations in the U.S. the ability to shut down any organization with an Internet presence worldwide.

I won’t explain the particulars, because the Khan Academy does a great job of it already - make sure you watch this: