The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
The recent cancellation of The Interview in the face of North Korean threats is a blow to freedom of speech, and a shameful capitulation to a brutal totalitarian dictatorship that is a veritable real-life 1984. Fortunately, legal scholars like co-blogger Eugene Volokh and myself are far from the only people who think so. A wide range of Hollywood celebrities and other wealthy and powerful people agree, including Rob Lowe, Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, Joss Whedon, Stephen King, and Damon Wayans. There aren't many issues that bring together President Obama, Newt Gingrich, and Michael Moore. But this one does.
With this many wealthy and powerful people on the same side, we are in a position to do more than just decry what happened. We can do something about it. Between them, the people who have denounced the cancellation can easily raise enough money to purchase the rights to the movie from Sony and then distribute it online for free. Given the publicity this issue has received, and the additional publicity it will get if the type of effort I propose is seriously undertaken, far more people are likely to see the movie than if movie theaters had shown it as originally planned. Since many different people would be involved in the effort, North Korea and its hackers could not scuttle it by targeting any one person or firm. By this means, North Korea's thuggish tactics would not only be defeated, but actually rendered counterproductive. That might make a repeat less likely.
Although Sony says it is considering other means of distributing the movie, it is far from clear that it will actually do so any time soon. Given the difficulty of distributing it through normal channels, it is doubtful that Sony expects to make a large profit from the movie. They might well be willing to sell the rights for a relatively modest sum. One reason why Sony might be willing to sell but not release it themselves, is that if they do the latter, they are still the only ones on the hook for it, and thus uniquely vulnerable to retaliation. Diffusion of responsibility to a much larger group mitigates the risk to any one member. Sony might also make more money from selling than from releasing to video, which might also be a factor in their calculations.
The standard obstacle to collective action of this sort is the danger of free-riding. Distribution of "The Interview" is a public good for all those who oppose the cancellation, so many will be tempted to hold back and rely on others to bear the cost. But that difficulty can be partially overcome through devices such as "assurance contracts," under which people make pledges to contribute money contingent on contributions by others. For example, I could pledge to contribute X dollars contingent on others raising a total of Y dollars.
This and other similar strategies won't prevent all free riding. But we don't need anything close to 100% participation by opponents of the cancellation. Even a relatively small minority of the wealthy celebrities who have expressed strong views on the issue might well be enough to raise the necessary funds. In addition, crowd-sourcing can be used to enable ordinary people to contribute as well. I hereby pledge to do so myself. And I suspect I'm far from the only non-celebrity willing to do so.
To get the ball rolling, however, we need a firm, an organization, or consortium of wealthy individuals who can set up the necessary fund and begin collecting contributions (preferably on a well-secured website or the like). Some expertise will be needed to address technical issues, most obviously figuring out how large an amount needs to be raised. These tasks are beyond my resources. But they are easily within the capabilities of many of the far wealthier and better-connected people who have decried the cancellation. Let's see if anyone steps up.
Even if this plan works, it will not be a fully adequate response to North Korea's actions. The regime might still benefit by deterring other studios from producing anti-North Korean films in the future. We will also need to look for ways to both harden defenses against North Korea hacking and inflict more direct retribution.
But if this proposal succeeds, North Korea's thuggery will at least be counterproductive in the sense that this movie will get far more attention than it would otherwise. And future filmmakers might be at least somewhat more willing to take the risk if they know, that should they be unable to distribute through normal channels, there might be a consortium that mitigates their losses in this way, and creates a larger audience for their work. The more money is raised this time around, the more confidence future filmmakers will have that, if worse comes to worse, a film critical of North Korea can still avoid the worst case scenario of being a near-total loss. The plan is not perfect. But here, as elsewhere, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
UPDATE: A news report earlier today (which I did not see before this post went up) indicate that Sony is planning to make the movie available for free at its Crackle website. If so, the plan I suggest above will not be necessary.