There's no excuse for digital piracy, thanks to online services like Netflix

Andrew Keen, Arts+LabsThere are, unfortunately, too many appeasers in the communications industry who have a dangerously permissive attitude to digital piracy. But as the primary victims of this piracy--writers, film makers and musicians and other creative artists--will tell you, today's mass online looting of intellectual property is not something that should, in any way, be taken lightly. 

Take, for example, the struggle of Wayne's World and Little Rascals director Penelope Spheeris to fight the digital theft of her work. Managing online theft is like "putting out a force fire with bare feet," she told me last month. Especially since many of the online thieves she confronts on the Internet are abusive, calling her a "bourgeois capitalist pig" and many less printable insults. One kid responded by telling the film director that he would "beat the snot out of her."

Larger movies are also victims of the epidemic. According to the monitoring service BayTSP, The Social Network has been illegally downloaded 9 million times on P2P networks since its release six months ago. These millions of pinpricks add up to one giant pain in the behind for the movie industry that is the business of making money rather than giving away its wonderfully high quality and expensive products for free.

There is a big question--a multi billion dollar question--that remains unresolved here. In an online world where stealing has become so easy that 9 million people have already illegally downloaded The Social Network, how do we get these millions of normally law-abiding people to stop breaking the law?

Legislation needs to be written guaranteeing that America's 21st century creative artists have the opportunity to make a living selling their books, their recorded music and their movies.

Senator Hatch and Leahy's bill, The Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which enables government to shut down websites if copyright theft is deemed "central to the activity" of the site, is a good first step. Rather than going after little old ladies "guilty" of shoplifting the odd song with ridiculously excessive fines, COICA seeks to shutter businesses designed exclusively around the illegal distribution of intellectual content. COICA, it seems to me, could act as our collective burglar alarm against online theft.

This is a bill designed to break up an "unholy alliance of search companies, ad serving companies, credit card companies and rogue websites" who are all profiting from today's mass online piracy. It's a bipartisan bill sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy and cosponsored by 19 senators including mainstream Republicans like Orrin Hatch and Lindsay Graham, and responsible Democrats such as Dianne Feinstein and Charles Schumer. This is a bill which, while not perfect (it's likely to be modified this year), offers a very sensible strategy for shutting down websites that enable and profit from piracy.

There really is no excuse for online piracy when today's web offers the most wonderfully varied and affordable content. Take Netflix's deals with the large media companies such as Disney and ABC, for example, which are creating more and more affordable and accessible streaming programming for only $7.99 a month. Or take Hulu's deal with Criterion, which gives Hulu Plus subscribers streaming access to the entire Criterion Collection, which is essentially all the greatest movies ever made--for $7.99, yes that's seven dollars and ninety nine cents, a month for unlimited viewing. Or take Spotify's all-you-can-eat streaming model of music which has been a big hit in Europe.

Netflix, Hulu and Spotify offer the highest quality, most instantly accessible and ridiculously affordable content on the Internet. And they are all entirely legal and have the full backing of content owners. No, given all this amazing content, there's no excuse for piracy. None at all.

I recently talked with Jason Reitman, the young Hollywood director of hit movies like Juno and Up In The Air. Reitman believes that unless we can address the problem of piracy, we risk losing the lifeblood of the American motion picture industry--the independent production, what he calls "tweeners," movies between the YouTube home video and the large budget studio productions.

Given the already razor thin margins on independent movies, Reitman fears that the very viability of independent films are being undermined by online piracy. What we could lose, Reitman warns, are movies like Lost in Translation, Reservoir Dogs, American Beauty and Pulp Fiction which have not only "pushed cinema forward," but have also enabled the blooming of young talent like Quentin Tarantino and Sofia Coppola.

The stakes, then, are high. Piracy is doing dreadful, sometimes even deadly damage to American culture. We need to fight back against the appeasers in the tech industry who, by turning a blind eye to online theft, are implicitly legitimizing piracy. The time has come to take a principled stand against the mass looting of Internet music, movies and books. By backing legislation like COICA, we can protect American creativity and guarantee its survival in the Internet age.

Andrew Keen is an adviser to media and technology coalition Arts + Labs, and is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, broadcaster and author.