SXSW Interactive 2014: Copyright and Tech After SOPA

sxsw2014-logoIn 2012, I went to SXSW Interactive to discuss copyright and government legislation.

It was an interesting time for the conversation about copyright and technology. It had been just under two months since the SOPA/PIPA protests and the closure of Megaupload.

Copyright was on everyone’s mind at SXSW and the conversation would turn to the subject whether or not a copyright person was in the room. Going there as a pro-copyright person, though not one fond of SOPA and PIPA, felt akin to stepping into the lion’s den.

Still, the conversations were good and I came back with a series of SXSW lessons that I had gleaned including how little tech had learned from the SOPA/PIPA debates and just how much major copyright stakeholders had to learn about the Web.

With this trip, the tone was very different. Not only were there fewer panels about copyright (at least directly) but the conversation was more focused on privacy, in particular as it relates to the NSA, and there weren’t nearly as many great copyright conversations to eavesdrop or join in on.

Still, there are a few interesting points worth discussing but rather than make it a series of posts, I’ve decided to highlight some of my key takeaways here, in no particular order.

Bear in mind that these were my takeaways based upon my conversations and the panels I went to. Others may have had different experiences and, if you have, I’d love to hear about them below.

Takeaway 1: SOPA is Distant, but Not Forgotten

Two years later SOPA and PIPA are still a common topic at SXSW, just not among the tech community. Content creators and those who work with them were eager to discuss the laws and the protests around them but the tech community, for the most part, seems to have moved on, focusing on other issues, in particular privacy.

The sting of SOPA and PIPA seems to have crushed any hopes of significant copyright changes or reform, in any direction. Even as the House Judiciary Committee is completing a thorough review of copyright law, including a hearing on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act on Thursday, the prospects for major reform seem grim with few wanting to push any significant agendas.

However, the bigger disappointment isn’t with the lack of reform or any particular attachment to SOPA/PIPA, but rather, the quality of the debate that came from the protests. Many had sought repeatedly to engage the public on copyright issues prior to SOPA/PIPA, only to have the public become engaged through what is widely seen as misinformation and half-truths.

The sting is still there for copyright holders, but the tech community seems to have largely moved on.

Takeaway 2: Tech and Copyright Are Working Better Together

In 2012 the expo hall had several companies that, while well intended, raised serious copyright questions that I had to ask their representatives about. In 2014, there were none.

In fact, the expo floor had several companies I’m looking forward to writing about because they had products or services that aimed to help protect, license, distribute or create works in exciting ways. All of them were built from the ground up thinking of copyright and obtaining the needed licenses.

This isn’t to say that tech companies are perfect, but the notion that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than seek permission seems to be on the wane. Much of this, I suspect, is because investors have become wise to these issues and have watched companies like Grooveshark struggle to find a way out of court, let alone turn a profit.

Investors don’t want to risk losing everything over a copyright lawsuit and this has pushed tech startups to find ways to work within the system that exists and even seek ways to improve it. In the long run, everyone stands to win from this improved cooperation.

Takeaway 3: This is the Calm Before the Storm

Right now is something of a peace time when it comes to copyright and tech, a time with no pressing or headline-grabbing pieces of legislation. There’s relative cooperation between the tech and creative community, a desire to build things together and a lot of interesting projects being batted around to do just that.

However, there’s a growing discontentment. Artists are frustrated with the costs and burdens of copyright enforcement, especially while watching their bottom lines shrink from existing business models while no new business models are rising to take their place. The tech community, likewise, is upset as it watches legitimate companies like Spotify and Pandora struggle to make a profit.

Both sides look at the other as being greedy and wanting to profit from the work of others. In many of the discussions, it was clear no one saw the effort and work that the other party brought to the table.

So while there are some interesting new initiatives and relative lull in the vitriol, there’s still a great deal of mistrust and that mistrust could boil over in a moment’s notice.

Bottom Line

For copyright and related issues, this was a relatively calm SXSW for me. While there were some great conversations, with SOPA/PIPA two years in the past and the NSA scandal hitting in between, the copyright debates have been moved to the back burner in tech circles, at least for now.

Even with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other IP-related controversies, copyright does not have the buzz it had 2 years ago. This made SXSW 2014 a much more calm experience for me than the one in 2012.

Still, this doesn’t mean it couldn’t become headline news again at any time. So now is the chance for the stakeholders to work together and try to build something new, which at least some tech companies seem to be trying to do.

However, even as olive branches seem to be getting extended, there’s a great deal of axe-sharpening too. While much of it is taking place behind the scenes, it doesn’t seem anyone is taking the lull in major fighting as a chance to completely rest.

When things heat up again, it will be interesting to see what lessons both sides have learned.

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