Why the GOP Turned on Piracy

2012-05 BIZ SOPA Sign Illustration

For Republicans, opposition to intellectual property laws is starting to look like a political winner, and that should terrify Hollywood as it misreads where the pop-culture power base now lies.

For Republicans, opposition to intellectual property laws is starting to look like a political winner, and that should terrify Hollywood as it misreads where the pop-culture power base now lies.

The entertainment industry has lost the fight over SOPA, its legislative proposal for stopping Internet piracy. Now some want to try again with a revamped bill and a bigger push. But the same approach could stunt Hollywood's clout in Washington.

That's because the industry still doesn't understand its adversary. From the start, studios saw the fight over SOPA as a struggle with a bunch of other companies -- Google and Internet service providers among them -- that were hoping to profit from the Internet travails of the entertainment industry.

That turned out to be wrong. In fact, the industry is fighting what amounts to a new popular culture.

Unlike the old pop culture Hollywood dominated, this one is largely independent of the music, movie and broadcast industries. In fact, people who spend hours online instead of watching TV or going to movies will probably encounter the entertainment industry only when YouTube videos of their kids dancing to Prince or spoofing Star Wars are pulled down by Hollywood's bots, or when the RIAA threatens to sue them for their college savings, or when digital rights software makes it hard to move their stuff to a new tablet or phone.

To the entertainment industry, these episodes might seem like collateral damage in the fight to stop piracy. To the new pop culture, though, collateral damage and misuse of enforcement tools are everywhere, and they threaten everyone. The content industry has made itself into the villain. Increasingly, it looks like an occupying power, obeyed at gunpoint, despised for its ham-handed excesses and resisted from every dark corner. Unfortunately for Hollywood, as its customers migrate to the Internet, it is losing not just their money but their hearts and minds as well.

The industry's miscalculation about the source of resistance to SOPA might have led to an even bigger mistake. As long as the campaign for better IP enforcement was an inside-the-beltway, company-versus-company struggle, it could be fought within the Congressional judiciary committees, where Republican and Democratic politicians were wooed and won as individuals. As a result, strengthening intellectual property enforcement has been a bipartisan issue for the past 25 years. But when the fight went from the committees to the floor and Wikipedia went down, every member of Congress was expected to take a stand.

The two parties reacted very differently. Despite widespread opposition to SOPA from bloggers on the left, Democrats in Congress (and the administration) were reluctant to oppose the bill outright. The MPAA was not shy about reminding them that Hollywood has been a reliable source of funding for Democratic candidates, and that it would not tolerate defections.

But that very public message also reached another audience: Tea Party conservatives. Most of them had never given a second thought to intellectual property enforcement, but many had drawn support from conservative bloggers. They began to ask why they should risk the ire of their Internet supporters to rescue an industry that was happily advertising how much it hated them. Pretty soon, far more Republicans than Democrats had bailed on SOPA, and the Republican presidential candidates had all come out for what they called "Internet freedom."

That's what really ought to worry the entertainment industry. For Republicans, opposition to new intellectual property enforcement is starting to look like a political winner. It pleases conservative bloggers, appeals to young swing voters, stokes the culture wars and drives a wedge between two Democratic constituencies, Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

We've seen this movie before. Immigration reform, the DREAM Act, free-trade agreements and the USA Patriot Act all commanded impressive bipartisan support -- for a while. Now, not so much. Bills on these topics still come to the floor, and they sometimes even pass, but only after endless partisan point-scoring and amendments driven by talk radio and mass e-mail. The same soon could be true of intellectual property enforcement.

SOPA has pushed a generation of Republicans into choosing sides between Hollywood and the Internet.

They might never look back.

Stewart Baker, a former government official under President George W. Bush, practices security and technology law in Washington D.C. He is the author of Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren't Stopping Tomorrow's Terrorism.