My Robin Hood Theory
By, Alex O’Sullivan-Pierce
It worked for the Prince of Thieves, but is it ok to rob the rich and feed the poor if the rich are Hollywood movie studios and the (comparatively) poor are the millions of people downloading “free” content on the web?
This April, I was lucky enough to catch Al Perry, Vice President of Worldwide Content Protection and Outreach for Paramount Pictures, when he visited Brooklyn Law School to discuss online piracy, copyright and the future of the movie industry. See Professor Derek Bambauer’s post on Infolaw.com for a detailed recap. Perry is touring law schools and other institutions as a part of a campaign by the major movie studios to engage the public in a discourse about what Hollywood grimly terms “content theft.” In the wake of the fallen SOPA and PIPA legislation, the movie industry is feeling collectively queasy about its future ability to monetize its content and stand its ground against whirling tide of “free” online media.
Mr. Perry told us that in his travels he has encountered a pervasive “love your movies, hate your industry” sentiment. This conception has spawned a sort of Robin Hood trend where people feel guiltless, even justified, indulging in pirated content because everyone knows that movie studios have raked in millions upon millions every opening weekend for the past century while the powerless movie goer has been obliged to ante up for rising ticket prices and overpriced popcorn. We the people feel oppressed, but why? After all, it is not as if we have ever been forced to go to theaters or buy a DVD.
On the surface, people feel bullied by the movie industry simply because they have more money than we do, but I think it goes deeper than that. The real problem is that people do not see big studios as innovators or purveyors of fine goods, instead many are of the perception that big studios actually seek to stifle the advancement in their own trade. I’m pretty sure that if movie studios had it their way, online content would not exist at all and people would be forced to buy DVDs forever, preserving the hefty 50% profit margin enjoyed on such wears. This is the oppressive, self-serving, and underhanded approach of the movie industry that allows the Robin Hood narrative to persist.
Evidently, studios do not care about advancing their craft; they only care about maintaining a strangle hold on the business model that has yielded huge profits for them in the past. And now that this model is obsolete, they are appealing to the government to help hold their spot a top the entertainment industry food chain.
Studios could begin by evolving in the way they think about copyrights. Contrary to the propaganda disseminated by the MPAA “content theft” is hardly an accurate description of the way people share media over the internet. For instance, if I purchased a DVD, I could certainly lend it to my friend to watch. So what makes peer-to-peer file sharing so different, the fact that you do not know the other person? Obviously there ARE SOME important differences, but file sharing is not the same as stealing a car, just as it is not the same as lending your neighbor a DVD and characterizing the rights held by a creator of a movie as the equivalent of a deed to a Honda is just incorrect. Intellectual property rights are not absolute; they are a set of compromises which are carefully balanced between private and public interests. We want people to be able to monetize their creative work, but we also want to allow a reasonable amount of freedom for the public to interact with such material. The evolving scope of copyrights and definition of infringement must be a negotiation, but this is not possible with when the movie industry leads the charge with a term like “content theft” because it paints the debate in polarized black and white terms.
Not so long ago, much of the clout wielded by the movie industry was their power to distribute. The internet has diminished the importance of many traditional distribution channels yet, until recently, the movie industry has stubbornly refused to adapt their business model to the advancing technology to the detriment of their potential consumers. In clinging to the outdated notion of copyright, studios have may have even acted against their own interests by eliminating a source of free advertising by pursuing takedowns of movie trailers being streamed over “unauthorized” sites. See the Underground Multiplex for more on that. This ogreish, uncompromising approach is what makes studios into villains, and casts internet pirates as loveable bandits.
People will always love the movies, but they will also hate the industry if they continue to spurn customers by standing in the way of advancement. The love hate dynamic has not crumbled the movie industry yet, last time I checked Paramount was still well in the black, but tyrannizing your people is dangerous road to tread, just ask Prince John.