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

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