Defining Visions: MPAA Changes Hands

Welcome to another month in the copy-protection wars.

Dan Glickman, a former secretary of agriculture, took over leadership of the Motion Picture Association of America in November. As the New York Times described him, Glickman is "about as bland as Jack Valenti is colorful."

Valenti, of course, was the longtime president of the MPAA, Hollywood's powerful lobbying arm. He fought the copy-protection wars with the ferocity of a holy warrior—and the vision of horse wearing blinders. He could see nothing but straight ahead, nothing to the left or right, and certainly nothing to the rear, though that is where he might have learned something.

It was Valenti who famously declared, in 1982, "The growing and dangerous intrusion of this new technology" threatened his industry's "economic vitality and future security." In fact, he added, the technology "is to the American film producer and the American public what the Boston strangler is to the woman alone."

He was, of course, referring to the VCR, which grew to be a huge profit engine for MPAA members.

Valenti used a similar flamethrower strategy as he fought to protect the viability of Hollywood's movies by hobbling the equipment we use in our homes to view them.

Glickman seemed to promise a softer approach. But shortly after taking over, he flew out to Hollywood to meet with his employers and promptly announced that, during his time in office, "The overlying issue is piracy and how we fight it." The day before, he had announced plans to sue anyone who illegally downloaded a movie from the Internet.

Glickman said lawsuits were only part of his new strategy. The other major part was "embracing new technologies"—such as requiring digital video recorders to automatically erase pay-per-view movies after a set period of time.

In the fall, TiVo and ReplayTV caved in under the pressure, agreeing to build circuits into their receivers that would allow Hollywood to limit the amount of time a movie can be kept on their devices before they are automatically erased. Hollywood has considerable powers of persuasion in this area. The studios can and do simply refuse to release movies to certain outlets if they are unhappy about the copy-protection setup.

Remember how slowly certain studios released movies on DVD back in the mid- to late 1990s, during the technology's infancy? One big concern then was copy-protection. But after a very few years, the stampede of buyers rushing to stores to buy DVD players forced all of the studios to change their minds. Now they make bundles of money, not just from renting DVDs but from selling them, too—a new, highly profitable market. Jack Valenti's old ghost story about the VCR has repeated itself with the DVD.

I'm not sure why Hollywood believes a pirate will be less likely to "steal" a digital, pay-per-view movie from a PVR, and somehow market it, if he has only 48 hours to make the copy before the movie is automatically erased.

Fred von Lohmann, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which lobbies against Hollywood in the copy-protection wars, said he hoped consumers would respond to this decision by TiVo and ReplayTV by "punishing" the two companies. But as the Frontier Foundation knows all too well, the copyright fight is a multifront war, and so the group joined several other consumer organizations to file suit against another new copyright rule, this one to impose copy restrictions on over-the-air television.

As anyone with any knowledge of television knows, Hollywood movies are not aired on TV until they are at the end of their profit life. Movies have a well-established profit schedule. First they show in theaters. Six months later they are sold and rented on DVD and videocassette, pay-per-view, and other paid formats. Later they show up on HBO and other cable channels. Finally, in the last step, they air on broadcast television.

The Frontier Foundation joined eight other consumer groups in a filing to a federal appeals court in November accusing the Federal Communications Commission of "arbitrarily and capriciously promulgating" broadcast copyright rules "in the absence of substantial evidence that it is needed." The public explanation for the new copyright technology, known as the "broadcast flag," is to prevent the distribution of digital programming over the Internet. But the consumer groups argued that the FCC mandated the technology "without any proof that DTV programs have ever been placed on the Internet."

Copyright battles are popping up in every corner. Also in November, the movie studios announced that they would file suit against thousands of consumers who use peer-to-peer Internet file-sharing networks to swap movies.

The record industry used lawsuits to try to stop the similar file-sharing of music. However, a recent study by the University of California Riverside and the San Diego Super Computer Center showed that the music-industry suits have had no effect on the popularity of file sharing. So what does Hollywood hope to gain?