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Editorial: Preserve and Protect

Studios and advertisers, payment processors and ISPs have all taken steps over the past couple of years to protect online content from pirates. Those and more will be necessary if online video is to prosper.

Could content providers have discouraged some of the rampant piracy by making more content available through legal channels? Yes, but the irony is they were wary about that for fear the content would be pirated anyway. Their inability to keep up with the online appetite does not change the fact that it is their content, which they invested big bucks to produce and distribute. And impatience on the part of online videophiles does not justify piracy.

As MPAA president Chris Dodd pointed out several weeks ago, Hollywood and Silicon Valley need each other. “We must strike a balance between the desire for a free and open Internet and the protection of intellectual property,” Dodd said. Add in Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (D-Vt.) declaration last week that “Broadcasters deserve to be compensated when their content is used for profit by other corporations,” and you have the sense of both the challenge and opportunity.

Most recently, the top ISPs came together to launch the “Six Strikes” program, which is a way to give people who use peer-to-peer file sharing to illegally download protected content fair warning, and then some. It could be expanded to include other kinds of piracy depending on the success of the program.

Six Strikes needs to include a concerted effort by all stakeholders, and a number of players have stepped up to the plate.

Hollywood backed off its hard line on legislation after running into the Internet buzz saw. That was partly political reality, but also “reality” reality. We’re not sure Silicon Valley has shown a similar olivebranch side after gloating over its political victory, bought at a price that included demonizing some respected Democrats who got in the way.

The death of programmer/Internet activist Aaron Swartz was a tragedy, but it should not drive a wedge between the government and online activists on the issue of protecting copyrighted content, or serve as a rallying cry for access hard-liners.

Opponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) legislation argued for a “follow the money” approach to reining in piracy. They have a point, though it should not preclude counterattacks on other fronts.

To that point, at about the same time in summer 2011 that ISPs first agreed to adopt their warnings, payment processors including American Express, Discover, MasterCard, PayPal and Visa agreed to work together to target pirate sites, investigate complaints and stop processing transactions for those sites that trade in pirated online goods.

The advertising associations have also at least presented a unified front, with the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Association of National Advertisers and the Interactive Advertising Bureau all recommending best practices, most importantly calling for contract language in insertion orders that prevent their ads from being placed on rogue sites infringing on intellectual property rights.

There are some positive signs on that front. An Annenberg Innovation Lab/USC study in February found that Google and Open X ad networks had significantly reduced the number of infringing sites hosting their ads.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Yahoo ranks No. 3 among ad networks placing ads on infringing sites, and ads from a bunch of bigticket advertisers were still appearing multiple times on sites identified as infringers including, ironically, Visa, and Walt Disney World, whose parent is a member of MPAA, not to mention (OK, we will) GM, Wal-Mart, Mazda, Verizon, AT&T and Honda, to name only a few.

We have been calling on the FCC to get on with defining a multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD) in terms of the rights and responsibilities of Internet video providers. But the industry will likely beat them to it, which will then require the FCC to align its regulations, or lack of them. And one of the responsibilities will be for the industries central to that new model— ISPs, search engines and content producers and distributors (some players are a mix of several of those)—to protect the copyrighted content that makes that online model more than YouTube kittens on pianos and the latest meme.