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Why the fight over online piracy is far from over

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Later this month, the nation’s largest Internet service providers (ISPs) will start to roll out the so-called “six strikes” anti-piracy program, officially known as the Copyright Alert System, a controversial plan to dissuade Internet users from illegally downloading copyrighted content. And on Thursday, the Internet Society of New York will hold an open forum to discuss what “six strikes” means for Internet users and other stakeholders.

To get an idea of what the pro-copyright camp might have to say, we reached out to PJ Kuyper, president of the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation (MPLC), which handles performance licensing (the thing that gives you the right to play a movie at, say, a company party) for major Hollywood studios and independent producers, to find out whether piracy-loving Internet users and copyright-reliant industries can ever reach common ground. (Hint: Not a chance.)

PJ Kuyper MPLC

DT: What is your view of online piracy?

PJ Kuyper: Internet users have this Utopian view of the Internet that completely discounts intellectual property rights, that diminishes people’s ability to own and to profit from their creative works. And I think that’s destructive to the creative community. And I think it’s grossly unfair.

Why do you think people don’t respect copyright?

I do think that there’s some rationalization going on when someone can get what they want for free, and then rationalize away the illegality of it. And I think it’s something that started back with Napster; people wanted to believe that this was this fantastic loophole that someone found. And I think that if people are honest with the issues, about copyright — who owns it, who controls it, who should profit from it — they’ll recognize that this idea that everything should be free is flawed.

Why do you think people have this “flawed” idea?

The message from [the Internet community] is getting out there on a grassroots basis. And they’re winning the hearts and minds [of users] who would love to know that what they’re doing is OK, and they can have the stuff for free. They’re soaking it up.

Can the entertainment industry change people’s ideas about copyright?

I think that, ultimately, the only way for the creative community to win is at the grassroots [level]. We have to get a hold of the hearts and minds of our customers and the Web users out there, and help them recognize that theft is theft.

There’s so much cost, and so much creativity that goes into creating this content, there is a great value. And people should pay for their copy. They should pay to watch it. They should pay to see it. And they should respect that. They should respect the copyright owners’ right to earn money on their creativity.

How do you get that idea across?

I think that it’s important that the creative community make its case that copyright is important, that intellectual property is still property. There are hundreds of thousands of jobs in the entertainment business. It’s not all rich, fat cat Hollywood executives making the money. It’s just the same as how buying a car benefits everyone working at the plant, not just the fat cat executives in Detroit. I think we have to explain that a lot more goes into making movies, and it’s not just the actors on the screen.

I also think that it’s important to instill a greater respect for the whole art of making a movie. And I think it’s also about teaching good ethics. Stealing is wrong. Parents would never allow their kids to walk into a store and walk out with a DVD without paying for it. Why would they look the other way when a kid is downloading a film illegally from a website? I think we need to reach parents, and figure out a way to have them instill these values in their kids.

What do you say to those who believe piracy isn’t technically “stealing?”

It’s a great rationalization. Piracy is hurting that copyright owner, even if you say, ‘I wouldn’t have bought that DVD, but I’m still going to watch it.’ That is still harmful. You’re not watching some other DVD that you paid for. You’re not paying for some other content. And, more importantly, I would say it’s not your right. Just because you technologically can do it, and it’s available, doesn’t make it OK. It’s still someone else’s content.

Do you believe piracy has repercussions aside from a potential loss of revenue?

We can argue how much piracy is hurting the motion picture industry, whether it’s $450 million a year, which is one estimate I saw, or if it’s some smaller amount. But what I see as the biggest impact is on these small to medium sized film producers. These small projects, these art films, these low-budget films are not being made because they can’t get into the theaters, and the DVD business is being destroyed.

And what that means is there’s no ladder for the creative community to climb to get into Hollywood. For writers, and directors, and actors, and lighting men and camera men — these little projects that used to allow them to earn a living in their craft, and also give them the experience and the credit that they need to get into the higher-budget films, is going away. And that’s really the shame of piracy.

Do you think direct distribution models, like Louis C.K.’s comedy specials, are viable on a large scale?

I think that putting out your movie on the Internet, and having either people pay for it, or having advertisements around it, or whatever model you choose is fine — is great. But that model is also threatened by piracy. If I put a movie on the Internet, and ask people to pay $5 for it, and someone goes in and copies it, and puts it on Megaupload.com, how am I supposed to get money from that? Piracy is destroying that from becoming a viable model.

Earlier, you mentioned that people’s idea of the Internet as a Utopia is wrong. What do you think is the right vision of an online Utopia?

The Utopia that I would describe is not one where everything on the Internet is free. The Utopia that I see is that we have a world now where anyone can create content, put it on YouTube, and become a star overnight. Shouldn’t they be in control and own that content? Should we have a higher value place on how we control it? It’s ours. We don’t want someone to take it away from us and exploit it, make money on it. We should all have a higher regard for our own creative content, and therefore, the creative content of others.

What do you think of the criticism that one of the main reasons people pirate content is because there are not legal ways to get it easily online, when they want it?

I believe that the studios and the creative community should do more to provide legal access to fill the needs of the people consuming the content. I absolutely agree with that. But because they haven’t filled that need doesn’t give people the right to steal.

What needs to change to provide that legal access?

There is a real issue right now in Hollywood about release windows. The studios want to be able to release movies into theaters and have people pay $10 to see them before they make them available for home use. I don’t think that’s going anywhere. Studios need the theatrical box office to profit from these films. Without protecting the theaters, Hollywood will not have the budgets to make good content for the home. So there is a real reason to keep these windows in place, so that we can have the best films in the best medium, which is on a theatrical screen. So, is that going away? No, I don’t think so. But I think there’s a real economic reason for holding films back.

What if movies just became available on the Web as soon as the DVD comes out?

I think all of the studios are moving to that. They’re all moving to a cloud-based system. They’re all moving to the iTunes and other Web distribution systems. And I think that model is growing. And as a consumer, I think you’ll absolutely see that when films are available for DVD, they’ll be available in the online medium as well.

The more that customers embrace the new, legal technology, the more you’ll see this type of access. The studios want to use this channel just as much as consumers want to have it available on that channel.

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