After Today’s SOPA Blackout, A Clean Slate

Many organizations, most notably among them Wikipedia, are going dark or gray for today to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act. When they come back, a lot more Americans will likely be aware of the now substantially altered legislation. And my hope, however unlikely, is that after this day of action, we can reset the conversation, especially now that DNS blocking and rerouting appear to be out of play.

It might help for both sides to acknowledge the legitimate fears held by powerful interests on both sides of the SOPA debate. Changing the way the internet is governed, especially after a year when free access to it played a major role in critically important liberation movements, is a hugely momentous thing to propose, even if you feel that your industry is at stake. It may be difficult to quantify the economic impact of piracy, but that doesn’t mean that there is none, or that it’s illegitimate for the people who work in an industry to feel insecurity about its transformation and their prospects for stable employment in it. Tech companies could do more to sell themselves to legacy content providers as beneficial partners. And legacy media companies could spend more time talking to consumers about customer service and cross-platform accessibility than scolding them.

Content and technology companies are not inextricably enemies, and there’s likely to be less and less daylight between them in the future. Netflix is making investments in shows like mob drama Lillyhammer and a remake of the classic British series House of Cards. On a smaller scale, Hulu is doing the same with its unscripted series from Morgan Spurlock and Richard Linklater and its first scripted drama, Wisconsin campaign series Battleground. Tom Hanks’ Playtone production company is making American Gods for HBO — and an animated science fiction series, Electric City, for Yahoo. Google-owned YouTube is shoveling money into content channels curated by actors and celebrities.

These companies may approach their long-term plans for their content differently than movie studios and television networks, and may have different approaches to copyright and distribution than the legacy media organizations. But my bet would be it’s a matter of emphasis rather than of a wholly new approach. It makes much more sense to embrace that connectivity and common interest, and for legacy and new media born out of tech companies to learn as much as they can from each others’ experiences getting rich content to broad audiences on diverse platforms. The SOPA debate has been bruising. But if it helps us lay out the issues that prevent these sides from working together, perhaps it’ll be worth it.