Intellectual Property

The Senate Is Ready for Its Closeup with Hollywood—And Tech Heads Are Pushing Away

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The NY Times reports on a little foreseen outcome of the new Dem Senate: Warmer relations with Hollywood–and likely deference to the entertainment industry's take on piracy issues, technological lockdowns, etc. Snippets from a recent meeting between stars such as Will Smith and pols in DC:

The conversation often turned to piracy, the existential issue that dominates the association's agenda. Mr. Hackford, who spent more than a decade developing "Ray," told of finding a bootleg DVD of the movie on the day of its theatrical release, and said 42 million illicit copies were sold within five months.

That meant millions of dollars in lost revenue—"and DVDs is how people get their money back," he said of movie financiers. "If they don't, will I be able to sell a hard-to-sell picture like 'Ray'? No."

In a rare moment of newsmaking, Barry M. Meyer, the chairman of Warner Brothers, issued a sharp rebuke to the president of the Consumer Electronics Association, Gary Shapiro, who warned in January that antipiracy efforts could "smother" technological progress and said that "private conduct may be unauthorized, but that does not mean it is piracy."

Mr. Meyer took issue with calling the theft of intellectual property merely unauthorized rather than illegal, and said that Hollywood's promotion of so-called digital rights management technology had made it possible for consumers to rent or buy movies and TV programs at a variety of prices.

"It's easy to demonize it, but without some level of control and order, things don't work," he said. "The only choice we're not offering is free."

Director Hackford, btw, also called himself "working class," so his reality testing may be off a little bit. Ray grossed at least $75 million in the U.S. alone, though I'm sure everyone buying those neatly counted 42 million "illicit" copies would have ponied up $5 or whatever to rent the thing from Movie Gallery had they been forced to).

Reason has been covering the policy war between big entertainment and the tech industry for years (go here for more). If Hollywood gets what it wants from Congress–think the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and the Copyright Term Extension Act–the little guy (with the possible exception of Citizen Hackford) will likely get screwed just a little bit more.

And here's a bit of ironic timing: Reader dzinski points to this Times' story about Apple's Steve Jobs seeing the light when it comes to removing copy protection from online music (including iTunes):

He proposed that labels could shed digital rights management altogether. Mr. Jobs pointed out that only 10 percent of all music sold last year was through an online store and that music is already easily loaded onto digital players from CDs, with no antipiracy features. Attaching digital rights management to music bought online has only limited the number of online music stores, he wrote.

"This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat," he wrote.

Mr. Jobs's move comes as the music industry appears to be facing a crisis. Sales of its mainstay product—the album—continue to sink, and sales of digital music, including individual songs, have not increased fast enough to offset the decline.

Jobs' conversion to this position trails that of Rob Glaser, the head of rival service Rhapsody, and seems more than a little linked to pending cases again iTunes' proprietary system throughout Europe.

But it does set the stage for a clash, especially if Hollywood is moving east in any significant way.