Digital wars, Round 2: Killing the golden goose

A decade ago, the digital music world was at war, and since then times seemed to have changed for the better. Thankfully, the conflict between technological innovation and the established entertainment industry has evolved from an all-out war to a more productive (if occasionally challenging) dialogue between artists, producers, distributors and industry. And everyone agrees that resources should be brought to bear against the distribution of unlicensed physical product and the worst of the worst in Internet actors. Still, the delicate détente among the players has to be kept in perspective as debate continues regarding how we treat copyright, ownership and intellectual property online.

Unfortunately, two weeks ago content owners declared a new war on the technology industry with the House introduction of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). This bill effectively draws new battle lines in the ongoing struggle over content online, with both sides — owners and providers — manning the barricades over the best way to protect content while maximizing consumer access. 

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Never before has technology changed the music business in such profoundly important and overwhelmingly positive ways. The new model has revolutionized the business of distributing content, expanding revenue streams for artists and labels and providing virtually unlimited access to music for consumers. This isn’t about upsetting the old regime — that’s already been done, and there’s no turning back. Streaming and “the cloud” represent the future, and such open platforms as Grooveshark — which work with artists, collection agencies and content partners — allow artists to have their music heard across the globe without ever giving up their rights of ownership.

What’s missing from the debate is an appreciation for how technology has opened the markets to more content than ever in our history. Today, thanks to such platforms as Grooveshark, YouTube and Facebook, as well as hardware manufacturers and software providers, artists are empowered to create high-quality music for millions of listeners around the world with only a few hundred dollars and a quiet basement.

The cost of production has never been lower. The cost of promotion has never been lower. The barriers of access to distribution have crumbled. There are more artists than ever before, creating more music then ever before, and it’s being heard by more people in more places at lower prices than ever before — a direct result of technology and innovation. And yet, many have been slow to participate.

We launched Grooveshark to turn these new technological paradigms into a reality and deliver on the promise of the open Internet while providing a new, legal alternative to piracy. Because of these new paradigms, the music world is now more vibrant than ever — all while our technology enables content owners to stop album “leaks” and remove unauthorized material from a centralized location. 

But all of these achievements are meaningless if rights holders refuse to participate in the process. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 — drafted with a fair share of input from content holders — struck a careful division of labor after years of negotiation. SOPA dismantles DMCA overnight, cutting off websites from payment and ad services without even a judge’s review, solely on the basis of a rights holder’s allegations — choking off income until they wither on the vine and die off. This is bad for the country and worse for artists. 

Last week, the Future of Music Coalition (FMC) voiced its opposition to SOPA, dealing a critical blow to the bill’s credibility. Unlike the other organizations that oppose the bill, the FMC unscrupulously represents the interests of artists, proving that the “job protection” claims of SOPA proponents are a red herring. 

Yet, the industry is still trying to force SOPA through, posing great threats not only to the new music paradigms but to democracy and legal due process as a whole. In addition to strangling the flourishing online music ecosystem, SOPA would give the government broad ability to shut down what it loosely deems “rogue websites.” This alone has formed an unlikely alliance of anti-SOPA advocates, from the liberal Demand Progress to the conservative RedState — two outlets that don’t often see eye to eye.

SOPA has declared a new war on the very technology companies that are combating piracy while providing ways to ensure that artists and other content owners realize new alternative revenue streams for their work. We believe in protecting intellectual property rights, but over-reaching legislation such as SOPA will stifle the now-vibrant music economy, silence consumers and American businesses without due process and create an Internet security hole that could just as easily have been avoided.

Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures put it best on his AVC blog last month: SOPA would kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Technology has delivered us such an animal. No, it’s not just artist royalties anymore — it’s in an entirely new music ecosystem that is not being exploited by those with the greatest control. Legislators are now in a position to encourage compromise, to step back and think about the broader implications of such an expansive piece of legislation or, conversely, to fast-track SOPA and set the clock back 20 years on American ingenuity.

Geller is senior vice president of external 
affairs at Grooveshark.