The Challenges of Creating International Content Norms

As the arguments over the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act continue, a report from the Swiss government illustrates why even if the SOPA passes and it becomes harder to download content you’re not paying for in the United States, it will still be very hard to establish a consistent international copyright regime.

Ars Technica reports that after considering a three-strikes law like the one in effect in France, or an internet-filtering system like the one proposed in SOPA, the Swiss Federal Council takes the position that the status quo, in which Swiss citizens can download copyrighted content they don’t pay for as long as they only use it for personal entertainment, is just fine. First, the report says that the money that its countries citizens aren’t spending buying DVDs and CDs end up coming back to the arts and entertainment industry anyway, because rather that diverting that spending to other kinds of goods, they spend it on concert and theater tickets and entertainment merchandise. And second, according to Ars’ translation of the report (which is in German), “piracy is only a significant concern for ‘large foreign production companies.'”

As you all know, I’m not particularly sympathetic to “let’s screw the man!” arguments against restrictive copyright laws. “Large foreign production companies” employ middle-class people as well as extremely wealthy ones. 73 percent of the Directors Guild of America pension plan, 60 percent of the health plan for the members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and 23 percent of the Screen Actors Guild pension and health plans are funded by residuals. I imagine they care what happens to those residuals, whether they’re thinking about uncompensated downloading or the structure of those funding plans. But the fact that those arguments have taken hold not just at the consumer level but at the national one illustrates a real challenge for advocates of stronger copyright law: it’s not going to be easy, or even possible, to get all countries on board with the same copyright norms. Blocking sites that offer pirated content in the U.S. may lock down part of the market, but if you can’t get China on board, content producers still have a problem.

This is not to say that getting innovative delivery mechanisms that can help cut down on piracy adopted internationally is going to be totally simple either. Netflix is moving forward country-by-country (it’s not in Switzerland yet, and it’ll be interesting to see how norms in that country change when it arrives there), but it isn’t just automatically available everywhere. Hulu is only available in Japan, and the site explains that “we don’t have a timetable or any news regarding expansion beyond Japan at this time…Our intention is to make Hulu’s growing content lineup available worldwide as quickly as possible. This requires working with the content owners to clear the rights for each show or film in each specific region. It’s a long-term project.” It’ll be interesting to see how the combination of legislating and enticing new norms works, both here and abroad.