A Clash of Media Worlds (and Generations)

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Well, last week, smarts won — at least one round.

BACK in high school they always told us that brains prevail — that cool gets you only so far.

Well, last week, smarts won — at least one round. Wikipedia went dark and Google blacked out its logo, as the brainiacs of Silicon Valley tilted at the A-list media giants of Hollywood and New York.

At issue were two antipiracy bills that few Americans had even heard of. Suddenly, though, people were buzzing about SOPA and PIPA — short for the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act.

The bills were put forward by the entertainment industry to combat unauthorized downloads of movies, music and television via foreign Web sites. The technorati argue that the legislation would hand the government Orwellian powers over the Internet.

It all seemed a bit like a food fight in the school cafeteria between “us” and “them.” Many of the media companies that have championed the legislation — the News Corporation, Viacom, Time Warner, Disney — have a rocky relationship with Silicon Valley. Sure, they want their content on new-school digital platforms — but they also want to keep their old-school profits. As if. Tension between the two sides seems certain to grow as the debate heats up on Capitol Hill.

Whatever the outcome, the clash prompted a remarkable outpouring within the Internet world. By late Wednesday, more than seven million people had signed an online petition from Google to stop SOPA. Many senators and representatives who previously supported the legislation had flip-flopped.

On Thursday in South Carolina, Republican presidential contenders spoke out against the bills during a debate on CNN. The audience booed when the moderator, John King, disclosed that CNN’s parent, Time Warner, supported SOPA.

Before Wikipedia went black, all of this probably seemed esoteric. But it may well go down as a watershed moment. The old media, it seems, is struggling to keep up with the Web.

“The grass roots they can generate is, frankly, concerning,” Cary Sherman, chairman and chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, said of the Internet community.

One reason for that, says Sandra Aistars, the executive director of the nonprofit Copyright Alliance and a former associate general counsel for Time Warner, is that the Web’s anti-SOPA message is “sexier” than the facts offered up by Hollywood.

“Downloading stuff on the Internet for free is cool,” said a person close to Viacom, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his relationship with the company. “Our message isn’t cool.”

This is from someone on the side of Viacom, which invented MTV.

SURE, many media companies have embraced the Web. But privately, many media executives say Internet companies pay them no respect. Copyright? Please.

And yet the Web needs content and, ultimately, it needs to get that content legally.

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“There’s no reason we can’t get together and work together,” said Michael O’Leary, a senior executive vice president for the Motion Picture Association of America. “But it’s difficult to do business with a business model that is based on theft.”

Fighting words, perhaps. But technology types don’t see this as a battle between Hollywood and Silicon Valley. They see it as a battle between old and new.

“It’s ultimately about disruptive and disintermediating technologies versus incumbent industry,” said Michael H. Rubin, a lawyer who has represented several large Internet companies in copyright cases. Incumbent industries, he said, chose “litigation and legislation over innovation.”

The faster that legitimate deals are struck, the sooner people will turn away from pirated movies and TV shows. “Right now they’re saying, ‘We understand you want to enjoy content on your own terms, and that’s the one way we don’t want to give it to you,’ ” said Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, and an opponent of SOPA.

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