Sun, Feb 12, 2012 - Page 13 News List

In piracy debate, deciding if the sky is falling

Entertainment industry and media heavyweights can’t agree on how to tackle illegitimate downloading and file sharing, or whether the practice is such a bad thing in the first place

By Jenna Wortham and Amy Chozick  /  NY Times News Service, New York

A protester flashes the “V” sign during a demonstration against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, an international treaty aimed at protecting copyright and curbing online piracy, held on Friday in Wroclaw, Poland.

Photo: EPA

When Fred Wilson, a prominent New York venture capitalist who has backed Twitter and Zynga, wanted to watch the New York Knicks game last month, he got an unpleasant surprise. Time Warner Cable was not showing the game because of a contract dispute.

Frustrated, he turned to the Internet for help. Within minutes he was streaming the game illegally on his big-screen TV.

“It’s not that we don’t want to pay for our sports entertainment,” Wilson wrote on his blog after the fact. “But last night we were turned into ‘pirates,’ as the entertainment industry likes to call us.”

Plenty of Knicks fans can sympathize with Wilson’s plight. And his rationale makes perfect sense to people in tech circles, who increasingly expect to have most everything available on demand, and resent it when media companies stand in their way.

That is not how media companies and the entertainment industry see it. From their perspective, tapping into pirate streams and file-sharing sites is no different from shoplifting in the supermarket.

“Copyright violations are a serious business and we don’t condone that in any way,” said Alexander Dudley, a Time Warner Cable spokesman, when asked about Wilson’s desperate measures.

The recent highly publicized fight over the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill put before the US House of Representatives and its counterpart in the Senate, the Protect Intellectual Property Act, threw a spotlight on this same disconnect between the Internet industry and the media giants of Hollywood and New York. Despite full-court lobbying by big players like the Motion Picture Association of America, lawmakers abandoned the bills after tech companies and groups, along with ordinary Internet users, mounted a frenzy of protests, saying the bills would hurt Internet freedom and innovation.

Now the challenge is for the two sides to find common ground on how to combat the piracy problem — though they can’t even come to terms on how big a problem it is.

“The fundamental issue is whether or not the sky is falling and the entertainment industry is being decimated by technology,” said James Berger, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property and entertainment content licensing.

Seeking out an illicit stream of a game that you should be able to watch legitimately is one thing. But media companies say they are facing a relentless barrage of far less defensible thefts involving movies, television shows and music.

In a letter in December announcing its support for stronger anti-piracy legislation, the motion picture association said that “US$58 billion is lost to the US economy annually due to content theft, including more than 373,000 lost American jobs, US$16 billion in lost employees’ earnings, plus US$3 billion in badly needed federal, state and local governments’ tax revenue.”

A spokesman for the association, Howard Gantman, said the US$58 billion figure came from an economic model that estimated piracy’s impact on a range of tangentially related industries — florists, restaurants, trucking companies and so on.

Many outside the industry are skeptical of its analysis. “The movie business is fond of throwing out numbers about how many millions of [US] dollars are at risk and how many thousands of jobs are lost,” said Art Brodsky, who works for Public Knowledge, a digital rights group. “We don’t think it correlates to the state of the industry.”

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