If SOPA is dead, what comes next?

By Jon Silk on January 25th, 2012

Back in 2004, Tim O’Reilly said in an interview with ReadWriteWeb: “We often get blinded by the forms in which content is produced, rather than the job that the content does.” Back then, RSS and e-books were the big news. It would be three years until the iPhone kicked off the smartphone gold rush, and six years before the iPad made us all addicted to tablets.

This year, O’Reilly joined thousands of other technology users on an “information diet”, cutting down on his use of technology as a new year resolution. “It’s very easy to get caught thinking you’re actually doing something when all you’re doing is consuming information,” he told PressDemocrat. Had he succumbed to the relentless juggernaut of new gadgets and technological advancements in form factor and production, and forgotten that content has a role in helping us to actually do things?

The Guardian’s recent history of smartphones gives some glimpse into the rapid ascendance of mobile devices. The first full touchscreen phone running on Android launched less than two years ago, but the world has already been flooded with relentlessly innovative products on the same platform.

12 megapixel cameras? Unbreakable glass? Glasses-less 3D? Waterproof handsets? They’re all out there. Countless digital columns inches are devoted to rumours on the colour of Samsung’s new tablets, how big a screen the inevitable HTC Goliath will squeeze onto a phone and whether Apple’s iPad 3 will be marginally lighter or thinner than the one before. The form factor of our devices, it seems, is everything.

That’s why the legal wranglings represented by the SOPA debate, which have dominated 2012’s first few weeks with intense online protest, including web blackouts and much celebrity hand-wringing, have done some good for the technology industry, besides the obvious win: they have content sharply into focus again.

“SOPA has undoubtedly brought content firmly to the fore in the public eye,” says Charlotte Walker-Osborn, head of technology, media and telecommunications at international law firm Eversheds. “While the creators of SOPA are seeking to create protection for content creators, especially those who rely on traditional distribution models for content based on copyright protection, many people feel it would go too far and would remove some of the access to content which is so easily available currently… Which is why it continues to be debated.”

Nicholas Fox, an intellectual property lawyer at Simmons & Simmons agrees: “Content has always been key and it certainly never left the agenda. It is just that there are only so many column inches and device disputes have been hogging the limelight recently,” he says.

Sitting down on your sofa with an iPad and wondering what to do with it seems to be a common complaint. Unless you’re willing to flout the law and download pirated content, and – as some do – hack your device and void the warranty, the only option is to pay premium prices and handle occasionally convoluted download procedures, just to watch a film a few feet closer to your face than your TV.

And forget streaming HD content to mobile devices while you’re on the move. It’s not like they promise in the adverts – at least, not yet. Should you be lucky enough to find available 3G or WiFi you will still have the same problems you suffered on the sofa.

But picture the scene post-SOPA. We have all been campaigning hard for content freedom. As a result, we have also been considering how great it is to have access to good-quality content on our devices. Once the debate is over, technology enthusiasts will realise that the content available to them is expensive and far too difficult to access. We have to hope that the legacy of the SOPA debate is a growing clamour among consumers for content providers for permit the experience that the device manufacturers have been promising – and designing gadgets to support – for years.

David Pogue summed up the problem well in a New York Times blog post, Put Down the Pitchforks on SOPA, saying: “For the record, I think the movie companies have approached the digital age with almost slack-jawed idiocy. The rules for watching online movies from authorized sites are absurd. (24 hours to finish the movie? Have they never heard of bedtime?) And there are plenty of movies, even big ones, that you can’t rent or stream online at all. (The original “Star Wars” trilogy, the first three “Indiana Jones” movies, and hundreds of others.) It should occur to these movie studios that if you don’t give people a legal way to buy what they want, they’ll find another way to get it.”

What is not in doubt is that piracy is bad news for funding original content creation, and that SOPA is bad news for piracy. If you ignore the fact that people have fancy devices begging for quality content to show on their high-definition, anti-smear screens, that control of delivery still looks broken.

The question now is: how will the content and entertainment industries respond to content being the missing piece of the gadget feature set puzzle?

“As far as tablets go, there’s some really interesting creative work going on, although from our point of view there’s a way to travel in establishing real user need, and I think the software supporting content delivery to tablet has room to mature,” says Mark Payton, Editorial Director of Haymarket Consumer Media. “I’m not sure I see a shiny future for 2GB tablet-optimised ‘magazines’. And I’ve been surprised by the success of straightforward, PDF-turner digital editions through Apple Newsstand and its rivals.”

What is also certain is that SOPA has forced us all to think about the content on our devices, where it comes from, and who is responsible for bringing it to us. The big studios, the device manufacturers, and the less-than-legal content distributors have been having an uneasy threesome in our living rooms for too long. Surely the SOPA aftermath will mean a better experience for users?

SOPA itself may now have been recalled by Congress, but the underlying problems the act was meant to address have not gone away. And they’re not going to.