Will last week’s blackouts reframe the conversation on copyright policy?

This online blackouts last week were not only the largest in recent history, but in a narrow sense, they might be the most effective ever. Imagine: online protests and the resulting media coverage and legislator calls led to the shelving of two “sure thing” bills over the course of two days.

But the protests shouldn’t just be considered in that narrow a frame. As Dan Gillmor and Marco Arment correctly point out, any victory against specific legislation in this field is bound to be ephemeral. The entertainment lobbying groups aren’t going to rest in drafting new laws to slip by under the public notice.

So the question becomes: were the online protests effective on any scale beyond the legislation at hand? I think the answer to that is yes. For one thing, these online protests brought copyright policy to the public attention, and that’s almost always a good thing. The moment at this week’s South Carolina GOP primary debate where all four candidates came out strongly against SOPA and PIPA felt unprecedented in the copyright world. In a field where “common sense revolts” at the industry-penned laws that are on the books, public attention is a real first step to reform.

Another change that I hope persists is the way that contested facts are being framed. One of the frustrating things about statements against the bills has been the formula they all seem to follow: we all agree that piracy is a major problem, but these bills are the wrong way to address them. Joshua McVeigh-Schultz at USC has done some good writing on this phenomenon.

Until the last few days, people who were questioning the premise, by suggesting that maybe piracy isn’t a serious economic problem, were on the fringe. Rick Falkvinge of the Pirate Party opposed the statements on the grounds that we need to “stop pretending to endorse the copyright monopoly“. Tim O’Reilly has been persistent and eloquent in questioning the economic harm of piracy. And of course Julian Sanchez’s spot-on analysis for the Cato Institute has consistently called the MPAA et al out on their funny numbers.

But in the past few days, I think we’re starting to see this discussion creep into the mainstream — or at least from the “copyright nerd” to the “general nerd” arena. Not only have musician Jonathan Coulton and actor Wil Wheaton (admittedly, both nerd icons) come out with statements that piracy is not the issue, but sites like Forbes and Freakonomics have picked up the question as well.

Detractors of the Occupy movement complain that those protesters’ issues were too nebulous. Without specific demands they couldn’t expect to effect change. In the short term, it’s true that they couldn’t claim the legislative victory that this round of protests have. But the Occupy protests were absolutely able to change the conversation. As Alexis Madrigal describes in the Atlantic this week, the Occupy protests created a problem in the particular set of “foregrounding” a set of issues into something that should be addressed. Madrigal is skeptical that the anti-SOPA efforts will be able to bridge from specific to general, but I remain hopeful.

Finally, it’s important to consider how this week’s actions have changed the face of online protest. Anil Dash has taken a good look at the history and future of online protest, with thoughts about how it might develop. I’m encouraged by the Reddit front page lighting up with stories about ACTA, and Hacker News discussing anew the YCRFS 9 proposal to kill Hollywood. There’s energy in the air, and it’s being directed in the right place. Hopefully now we can look at ways to proactively shape copyright policy in a way that benefits the public, instead of reacting to bad legislation one after another.

There are a lot of places to reform copyright. Joel Spolsky has put together a good list of them, if you’re interested. We can’t know yet, but I hope to look back on the events of this week as a starting point for big changes.

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