Leading Hollywood’s Anti-Piracy Battle

Former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), now chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, last year found himself as the commanding general in a civil war of sorts between Northern and Southern California over the issue of online content piracy — an issue that has grown in importance with the shift to online distribution of video content.

That battle didn’t go so well, sparking huge online protests over MPAA-backed legislation, but Dodd has changed tactics and is focusing instead on consumers and finding areas of cooperation. He still bristles at the tactics of some on the other side of the debate, but said the focus should now be on consumers and new delivery systems, not old conflicts.

In an exclusive interview with Multichannel News Washington bureau chief John Eggerton, Dodd talked about advocating for the industry, media violence, Aereo and protecting online content.

MCN: How do you deal with online piracy?

Chris Dodd: I learned through nine elections that you never stand up and say, “This election is about me.” That was a pretty good formula for a short public career. [Dodd served for more than three decades as a Democratic congressman and U.S. senator from Connecticut.]

I don’t want to dwell on [the Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect Intellectual Property Act, anti-piracy legislation scuttled by a big, Google-led pushback from Web firms]. In those days, I wasn’t allowed to talk to people I had spent 30 years of my life with, but it seemed to me that the other side, cleverly, made the debate about us, about our profitability, our product. The debate was over at that point. Because the debate is not about us, it’s about the consumer.

So, I think that what we have been trying to do is say, “This is about you as a consumer.”

Yes, it is about our product: It’s about our artists, our creators and the 99% who work behind the camera whose jobs depend upon this, the 2.1 million people who got up this morning whose jobs depended on film and television and the $15 billion-plus in tax revenues we generate each year in this country. But it is also about you as a consumer. You deserve a great product. You like this product. You tell us that every day. When we put out a good story, well-told, you show up.

We need to frame the debate more about the positive things we do and why piracy really hurts them, in addition to whatever damage it does to our industry — to independent filmmakers maybe more so than even the studios, as rough as it is on them. The great director Taylor Hackford makes a strong point about the ability to attract private equity to independent films.

So we need to engage, and I think we are engaging, in a positive message about why intellectual property, copyright and piracy are matters that are not just the concern of the industry that produces them but the audience that depends on them.

MCN: From the outside, the SOPA/PIPA debate looked much like a civil war between Northern and Southern California. Your rhetoric got pretty heated and the other side was taking aim as well. Could you have anticipated the Web pushback or handled it differently? What happened?

CD: Having been around that institution [Congress] for 36 years, I never saw anything quite like it.

In a period of seven or eight days, you have the unprecedented action where 7 or 8 million emails showed up on the computers of members of Congress; 13 million at the White House. And I don’t recall any issue, including a Mother’s Day Resolution, where 50% of the United States Senate were co-sponsors of a bill. There is a difference between saying you are going to vote for it and putting your name on it.

And within a matter of hours you were hard pressed to find a single name left on that list. This was a tsunami. [Netflix CEO] Reed Hastings said to me it was almost like a swarm of bees. We’ve never seen anything like it before.

In the past, on the issue of copyright and intellectual property, musicians, artists, publishers, writers, would talk, and there were some committee members and staffers who understood the issue, and, obviously, there were a few regulatory bodies who were involved in the issue. But the issue of copyright and intellectual property didn’t have any popular audience.

I’ll give you an example from years ago: The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were not an endowment at all. It was appropriated money. So I thought, “Why don’t we create a true endowment? Why don’t we say that at the end of the copyright period, whatever you decide it would be, there would be a period of, say, 20 to 25 years, in which the revenues from otherwise copyrighted material would go into a true endowment? One generation of artists supporting the next.” I got about four votes for the idea. There was no audience at the time for that kind of discussion.

MCN: You suggested in a National Press Club speech that comprehensive anti-piracy legislation is no longer needed. Is targeted legislation needed? If not, what is the best approach?

CD: It seems to me that what really needs to happen is what is happening.

Going back to your first question, which is a very good one, I hope that we are demonstrating a changed approach on this, and that is, let’s ask our consumers, as we have been doing in surveys, here, in Europe and elsewhere, to share with us their views and their thoughts on how they view this issue. And again, with now 375 distribution services available online, the argument that “I have to do this because there is no other, legal, way I can get you this content” is becoming less credible.

Google [is] willing to change its algorithms so that when you and I search for movies, the page that pops up doesn’t have five sites on it that are illegal and elevate legal ones; and maybe even put a Good Housekeeping seal of approval or some identifier for the consumer, because it is awfully hard to detect a legal from an illegal site.

Our Copyright Alert System is in place, and it is showing some success. There is no punitive reaction to it. It is really letting people know that you have downloaded an illegal site. I think that is going to have some positive effects.

MCN: You are talking about the “six strikes” program?

CD: Yes.

MCN: Do you favor expanding that beyond illegal peer-to-peer file sharing to other forms of piracy?

CD: I think we just want to leave it peer-to-peer at this point. We just started it in February. We did it with [Internet-service providers] and tech companies, and it took a long time to get an agreement to go forward. But, again, our surveys are discovering that with the availability of legal sites at a price point that is affordable, an awful lot of people will go in that direction.

I looked at something the other day. It’s not available yet, but it’s the kind of thing we’re all working on. It’s where, if you and I went to an illegal site unintentionally, a pop-up appears and says: “This site is illegal. If you’d like to see Lincoln, you have four different sites you can go to watch the film at this same price point.” The assumption is that when that pops up and you show an alternative where you can get the same film, and a better copy of it, by the way, and a legal copy of it, at an affordable price point, you will take that simple step to do it. We haven’t done that yet, but I like that idea.

Again, respecting the consumer, respecting that most people, given good options at affordable prices, will make good decisions.

Does it wipe [piracy] out? No. But going back to your question, a lot of it is business to business, a lot of it is chatter going back and forth. The tech community is not monolithic, and they are changing. Google has YouTube, and now YouTube wants to charge for content. And, hello? Amazon. All of a sudden you have something you want to protect and you begin to get a different attitude and you start talking about the subject matter.

The idea was offensive to me that a responsible company was allowing the argument to be made that we were against freedom of speech and we were breaking the Internet. It was just baloney and they knew it. As H.L. Mencken used to say: “When they tell you it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.”

MCN: Who is “they?”

CD: Any one of them who at the time [of the SOPA/ PIPA debate] would say, “These guys want to break the Internet and are against freedom of speech.” They knew they were phony, foolish arguments and it was not an honest debate about what the effort was, which was to shut down foreign sites that were stealing product.

The bills may not have been drafted as well as they should have been, and we should have done a better job of anticipating an argument, but it didn’t make their arguments any more meritorious.

MCN: You once said you didn’t want to be a lobbyist. Why did you take the MPAA job?

CD: I’m an advocate for this industry and becoming a bit of an evangelist. The more I’ve learned the more I respect [this industry].

I say this respectfully, but for years there were only three networks and the only way to see a movie was to go to your local theater or come to the MPAA unless you knew someone in Hollywood with a home screen. No Internet, no cable, none of the new technologies that have emerged. So, I suppose, they probably didn’t feel as though they had that many issues they had to address. And so there was very little discussion about the business of Hollywood.

All of the news you read about Hollywood was the glamour side of it, the Oscar night, the movie magazines. And so, I am exhibit A. A little more than two years ago if you had asked me to have a conversation with you about this [industry], it would have been a very brief one, even though I raised money out there [in Hollywood] as a candidate through a number of elections.

The more I’ve learned about the number of jobs involved and the amount of revenues they generate, the branding of an industry from which we have benefitted tremendously. Also [there is] the long list of films like Gentleman’s Agreement or Philadelphia, that have done far more than entertain but [have changed] people’s attitudes in this country and elsewhere. I think that is underappreciated in many ways and I feel a passion about legislators, regulators, policy-makers, opinion-makers to understand that, with all its shortcomings and flaws, this is a very important American industry, and it deserves a better understanding of how much good it does on a variety of levels. And, to that extent, I have become a bit of an evangelist.

MCN:So, did Hollywood have you at hello?

CD: No, the first few offers they made I said, “I think you have the wrong guy.” But I got some good advice: If you are going to do something different, do something very different, and this is very different. I am enjoying the work and the people I work with. They’re bright. They care. They love the product and they want to do a better job.

MCN:Do you feel the shadow of Jack Valenti?

CD: I knew him so well. He was great friends with my parents [Dodd’s father was also a senator] and a great friend to me. I used to drive him nuts. I had fundraisers in California and I didn’t go through Jack because I had a lot of people I knew. But he was a great advocate and a wonderful person. But no, I don’t feel any of that. I would like to think he would think I was doing a good job.

MCN:TV screens are 100 inches, HD, earlier VOD windows. What are those changes doing to the theatrical distribution model?

CD: Not much. First of all, this is a studio-by-studio issue. There is not an industry approach on this. It all begins with the supposition that the best place to see their films is in a theatrical setting, Surround sound, big screen, almost a communal environment.

MCN:Do you see over-the-top as value-added?

CD: Absolutely. More people still go to a movie, globally, than go to any other live audience event combined. Now, in terms of the number of people in the audience, it doesn’t beat watching television at home, but all the other events you can think of where an audience shows up, movies are still the dominant form of entertainment, and at an average price point of $7.92.

MCN:You mentioned various distribution examples. Where are you on Aereo?

CD: This is not directly in my wheelhouse in a sense. But, obviously, I support the views of my member studios and other copyright owners that services should not be able to retransmit content over the Internet without permission from copyright holders.

The basic proposition is still a valid one. I mean, you can’t have a value system off line and a different value system online. It just defies logic. That’s not to say you can’t accommodate new technologies for content.

There is still a lot of litigation going on, obviously. But at the end of the day, I hope the courts will uphold the principle that those who invest millions of dollars in making movies and TV shows deserve to be compensated for their hard work.

MCN:Let’s talk about media violence for a minute. Do you think momentum in Congress for action is dissipating, and is that a good or a bad thing?

CD: On a personal note, almost 50 years ago my father offered the first gun control legislation in the U.S. Congress, certainly since the 1920s or 30s. Connecticut was the largest gun-producing state in those days, by the way. It took him eight years and the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King to get a bill passed in the fall of 1968. I did not pay as much attention as my father did, but was deeply involved as a member in voting for and supporting legislation.

After Newtown, this is more than an abstraction. I happened to have been in that town the night before Dec. 14. So, I care deeply about it.

But on the [media violence] issue, you can go back to [Greek playwright] Euripides. He was run out of town in 300 or 400 B.C. because he wrote a play people thought was influencing the behavior of youngsters in his town. Three things to keep in mind … First, that choice is important. Our industry produces a product which offers great choice to consumers. Second, I believe very strongly that we ought to give parents the tools and the controls that they need to make decisions about what they want to see, but more importantly, what they want their children to see. And, third, that we give them the education necessary to make those good decisions.

Those are the three legs on which we stand. And our rating system now is 50 years old. It is evolving, never permanent in the sense that you would not be mindful of what the community standard is, and in a country this diverse, deciding what the community standard is damn hard, to put it mildly.

But it is interesting that the public gives us very high marks in the surveys we do. I’m not going to say it’s perfect. And recently, in the wake of what happened at Newtown, sitting down ourselves and saying how can we do a better job on this, we came up with something called “check the box,” which will enlarge the rating symbols and [put] the descriptors in much clearer language so the people know what is going on. We changed the Website so that people can actually go and learn. If your child wants to go see something, you can actually … determine what they are going to walk into and see.

MCN:Do you expect the bills to conduct studies of violent media will make it through the Congress?

CD: People have been studying this stuff forever and we don’t mind if people want to look and study things. I don’t see any harm in all of that. But I think we all ought to be very, very cautious and careful about all of a sudden legislating content. If you get into that, it’s a slippery slope you will regret deeply, in my view.

MCN:Why did the MPAA push back on changes to the Federal Trade Commission’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act rules?

CD: I don’t think it was so much pushing it back as it was the implementation. [The MPAA asked that the changes take effect at the end of the year, rather than the current July 1 date.]

The rules have been established here and again, I spent most of my public career on children’s issues and an awful lot of legislation involving kids [he co-founded the Congressional Children’s Caucus and was principal author of the Family and Medical Leave Act]. So, I care a lot about it, and the industry does as well, particularly companies like Disney and others. I pay a lot of attention since so much of their product is geared to children. And the rule is around, and we continue to work closely with the FCC on COPPA. The logistics of implementing the new procedures can prove challenging, and so we are very much engaged on the implementation phase. But our general proposition is that we support what they are trying to do. We accept the rules that have been adopted and we just want to make sure that the implementation works well. 

The Big Six

WASHINGTON — The Motion Picture Association of America is a pretty exclusive club, though one whose members, according to the trade group, represent almost 2.5 million U.S. TV, film and online video jobs and who contribute nearly $180 billion to the U.S. economy annually.

While the National Association of Broadcasters has 7,500 members, the American Cable Association 850, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association 186, the MPAA has only six members: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; Paramount Pictures; Sony Pictures Entertainment; Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.; Universal City Studios; and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

— John Eggerton


1944: Born in Willimantic, Conn.

1966: Graduates from Providence College; joins Peace Corps

1969: Begins service in National Guard (until 1975)

1972: Graduates from University of Louisville Law School

1974: Elected to the House of Representatives

1980: Elected to the Senate

1986: Introduces Family Medical Leave Act

2007: Becomes chairman of the Senate Banking Committee

2009: Co-sponsors Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

2010: President Obama signs Affordable Healthcare Act, which Dodd co-authored; Dodd co-authors Danny Pearl Freedom of the Press Act; announces he is retiring from Senate

March 2011: Joins MPAA as chairman and CEO

October 2011: Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), backed by MPAA, is introduced

January 2012: Web blackout helps defeat SOPA and Protect IP Act (PIPA) Senate bills

October 2012: Dodd extends olive branch to Silicon Valley in San Francisco talk about shared goals.

February 2013: “Six Strikes” copyright warning regime launched with backing of MPAA, major ISPs

April 2013: MPAA launches “Check the Box” ratings education campaign

May 2013: MPAA launches one-stop legal video resource called Wheretowatch.org

SOURCES:Chrisdodd.com; Multichannel News research