Don’t look to Hollywood for insights on piracy, part 1
Late last month, Frederick Huntsberry, the COO of Paramount Pictures, gave a talk at an FCC workshop on the future of broadband policy in the U.S. Â He gave a ten minute Powerpoint presentation about the problem of piracy of media content, particularly the unauthorized distribution of Hollywood produced films. Â Huntsberry’s contribution to the workshop received a good deal of coverage, some focusing on the odd sight of a studio executive giving an almost “how-to” guide to downloading unauthorized copies, but also from Paramount’s attempt to prevent Huntsberry’s talk from being distributed itself, for fear it would teach some would-be pirates how it’s done.
Commentators knowledgeable about the P2P world pointed out the numerous technical inaccuracies contained in Huntsberry’s presentation, particularly in his list of piracy assisting offenders that included such Internet giants as Google, Yahoo, but also promising technology start-ups like Drop.io and Boxee, not mention electronics makers like Apple and Sony. The heavy-handed nature and basic cluelessness of the talk, now widely distributed by YouTube, has received a great deal of mocking, yet the comedy has obscured the larger issues that the workshop discussed and Hollywood’s stated analysis of piracy. Â Now that the entire transcript of the workshop is available, I thought it would be worthwhile to dig a bit deeper, and look at not only what Huntsberry’s presentation reveals, but also examine what the other Big Media representatives had to say. Â (although, if anybody has a copy of the Powerpoint deck Huntsberry showed, I would love to get a copy) Â What we see is both more damaging to Hollywood’s credibility when speaking about piracy, but also raises disturbing questions about their vision of the Internet more broadly. Â In part 1 of this post Iâ€™m going to look at the scenario Hollywood paints of current piracy, while in Part 2 I will show how far off the mark they are and why their prescriptions should be dismissed as both inaccurate and likely to cause more harm than good.
The speakers from Hollywood included not just Huntsberry from Paramount, but also Dan Glickman, CEO of the MPAA, Â along with representatives from the Directorâ€™s Guild, the Copyright Alliance and the Writerâ€™s Guild (Gigi Sohn from Public Knowledge presented a more civil liberties-oriented perspective). Â Not surprisingly, the Hollywood consensus was that any future government involvement in broadband policy must address what Glickman termed â€œthe tidal wave of piracyâ€ online. Â The Hollywood speakers however went beyond the mere fact of copyright violations to emphasize how the problem is actually growing worse. Â The emphasis of what Huntsberry in particular demonstrated was what he called the shift from â€œGeek to Sleekâ€ in video piracy, or how technological and business developments online have made it markedly easier to both distribute and receive unauthorized content. Â As he put it, â€œWhat we’ve seen now that there’s been a huge development shift in piracy — if you go back a few years it was strictly — you know, you have to be computer-literate as a user. Today, anyone can pirate a movie.â€ (emphasis mine) Â According to Huntsberry and Glickman there has been a crucial move away from downloading to the streaming oftpirated movies, a fundamental change in their view. Â No more confusing software to install, no more waiting for lengthy downloads to complete. Â In Hollywoodâ€™s nightmare, it is no longer only tech-savvy geeks sealing content, but potentially everybody with a computer, a fast Internet connection, and a desire to see the latest blockbuster film for free. Â New gadgets can even get that illegitimate content off the computer and into the living room.
Even more disturbing to Glickman and Huntsberry are the multitude of ways legitimate companies are seemingly supporting the pirate infrastructure, making it easier for users to participate by lending a kind of legitimacy to the outlaw operations. Â Pirate websites often make money from advertising, including from respectable companies, or can employ Paypal to generate revenue from their â€œcustomers.â€ Â Internet connected devices from Apple and Sony, innovative software from Boxee and Yahoo, even seemingly innocuous services like Facebook and Drop.io all contribute to what Glickman called a â€œlawless environmentâ€ with â€œno rules of the roadâ€ or clearly defined distinctions between what is allowed and what is not.
The underlying, though generally un-stated, argument that Huntsberry, Glickman and the other media lobbyists put forth was that the neither the FCC nor any other government agencies should prevent ISPâ€™s from taking on a monitoring role to prevent the trafficking of pirated content through their pipes. Â In fact, what the copyright owners would love to see are laws that mandated ISPâ€™s become copyright enforcers with the ability kick offenders off the Internet entirely, as has been promoted in a handful of countries recently. Â Any expansive notion of â€œnetwork neutrality,â€ that might actually limit the ability of ISPâ€™s or other proposed monitors from examining or manipulating Internet traffic is anathema to organizations like the MPAA and is a constant target of their lobbying efforts. Â Huntsberryâ€™s presentation, that also included a giant banner depicting the massive flow of unauthorized copies of the most recent Star Trek film, was purely to alarm government regulators of the apocalyptic scale of the piracy problem and overwhelm any lingering reservations about possible negative effects of monitoring.
Yet neither Huntsberry, nor Glickman, or any of the other speakers, were able to present any hard evidence that piracy has in fact grown recently, or has indeed shifted to a new more dangerous form, or even that it fundamentally threatens their current business models in a profound way. Â We’ll examine the veracity of their claims next week in part 2.