Incredibly, there’s still some chatter in the infotainment lobbying community about launching another effort this year to pass tough anti-piracy legislation — even though lawmakers decided more than a week ago to scuttle the Senate’s Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). After all, the thinking goes, even people who opposed the Hollywood-endorsed bills agree that the piracy problem needs to be addressed. The idea is to come up with a more palatable version of the proposals, and then try to gain traction with the public by running ads featuring A-list stars talking about how a new law would protect U.S. jobs. But don’t worry. Cooler heads probably will prevail as it sinks in that 2012 won’t be the year when Congress will adopt a variation of Hollywood’s proposal to let the government block overseas sites that traffic in pirated content.
Those who want to keep going say that there might be room to blend the goals of SOPA and PIPA with a bill that the tech industry supports: the Online Protection & Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN). It would give the International Trade Commission the power to stop U.S. advertisers and payment companies from dealing with overseas sites that have “a limited purpose” and are found to be selling pirated content. Staffers from rival lobby groups in the creative community and the NetCoalition continue to talk about holding meetings soon to see if there’s common ground.
But the political calendar works against Hollywood. Last week everyone focused on President Obama’s State of the Union message. Soon, Washington will pour over his 2013 budget. Lawmakers will want to talk about big issues such as the budget deficit and health care reform instead of proposals to stop some sales of pirated movies, TV shows and music as we approach the nominating conventions and election campaigns. Congress will have no appetite to take up the piracy issue again soon if there’s even a hint of controversy.
And seasoned politicos tell me they can’t envision a compromise that would satisfy everybody. The MPAA has pretty much ruled out a deal based on OPEN, calling it “ineffective and essentially a distraction.” It said that ITC is understaffed, deals mostly with patent law — not copyrights — and typically takes 18 months to decide cases. Meanwhile Silicon Valley reps feel that they’ve got the political mojo. “Trying to ‘fix’ SOPA and PIPA and all of the bad provisions in those bills is the wrong approach,” Public Knowledge CEO Gigi Sohn — who opposed the bills — said in a recent blog post. “Conceptually, it’s like trying to build a building starting on the second floor. The most logical way to proceed would be to start building a structure from the foundation and working up from there.”
What’s more, the anti-piracy debate can’t be settled in the back rooms — it’s no longer an old-fashioned, inside-the-beltway competition between lobby groups. Wikipedia and others who mobilized this month’s net protests against the bills understood that millions of students, artists, public interest activists, lawyers, librarians, venture capitalists and other people care about Internet policy. They’re ready to to fight proposals that they believe might make it less open. Hollywood was cooked the moment these Internet policy devotees became engaged in the anti-piracy debate, turning it into a populist crusade. Moguls showed that they have a political tin ear, and reinforced the popular perception that they’re over-privileged self-dealers, when they petulantly threatened to withhold contributions from President Obama and other Democrats who felt they had to respond to the public outrage over SOPA and PIPA. What they don’t seem to have realized is that the congressional leaders who withdrew the bills may have done them a big favor. If Hollywood’s pals insisted on pushing ahead, then not only would the proposals have gone down. The industry would have lost so much credibility that just about any new anti-piracy bill it blesses would have become radioactive.