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A Day With the MPAA

The Motion Picture Association of America's symposium I attended yesterday had many interesting and enlightening moments--though not all made the MPAA look that good.

The various industry types who spoke did make some useful points that bear consideration. For instance, Warner Bros. CEO Barry Meyer argued, in a particularly scolding manner, that the mess of incompatible DRM formats isn't the studios' fault; the blame should be more accurately directed at hardware and software firms which keep promoting their own proprietary systems.

And it was helpful to hear directors and producers offer more concrete examples of what they felt were the economic effects of piracy. Taylor Hackford recounted how he spent 13 years trying to make "Ray," then said movies like that--not blockbuster fare, but not cheap to make either--would only be harder to get backing for: "Will I be able to sell hard-to-sell movies like Ray? No."

But throughout the day, I kept hearing some of the same old dubious assertions that should have been abandoned years ago:

People who oppose us want to get everything for free

Meyer and others threw this one out over and over. Now there are some folks who believe that intellectual property by right out to be free--but they are a small minority. Trying to deny the existence of any reasonable opposition through strawman arguments like this is no way to be taken seriously.

Every download represents a lost sale

A flyer handed out to attendees featured some suspiciously precise estimates of the cost of illegal movie redistribution: 141,030 American jobs, $5.5 billion in U.S. wages, $837 million in additional state and local tax revenue and $20.5 billion in "new annual output to all U.S. industries."

Really? The math behind these figures goes unexplained in the flyer--by itself, a good reason to suspect such strangely precise estimates--but I don't see how you get those high numbers without counting every illegal download or purchase as a legitimate transaction. If so, that's wildly off. It's a basic principle of freshman-year econ that demand is "elastic"; charge less for something and people will use more of it. If these consumers had been forced to pay for every illegal viewing, some would have gone broke--and almost all would have found other, cheaper ways to pass some of that time.

Piracy is other people's fault

Hackford told a story of how he walked around New York City on the day one of his movies debuted and found a "perfectly packaged" DVD of it for sale on a Canal Street sidewalk. He then explained that an examination of that disc revealed that it originated from a camcorder recording in a nearby movie theater (movie prints are watermarked to allow this kind of tracing), then duplicated at a plant in Russia. But the only way the DVD could have gotten back to the States so fast--even if the Russian mob hired a MiG fighter jet to deliver the pirated disc--was for a movie-theater employee to have shared that print with somebody before opening day.

It's funny, then, that so many industry types want to see more copy-control technology shoved into people's living rooms.

Theft of intellectual property is the same thing as theft of physical property

Meyer declared this, but so did Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), who said car theft, home burglary and movie piracy were all just as illegal. Yeah, but... intellectual property is still not the same as physical property. "IP" becomes public property after a set interval, while real property never does. The law allows many unauthorized uses of "IP", but just try offering a "fair use" defense if you're caught breaking into somebody's car.

It's disappointing to hear this nonsense from a senator; it's especially disappointing to hear it from Leahy, who has been on the right side of other tech-policy issues. (He was one of the few voices of reason to oppose the Communications Decency Act.)

Everybody will be able to download high-def copies in seconds

Before lunch, one panelist described how fast you could transfer high-definition video over Internet2 connections in tests--and then moved on from there to say that anybody would be able to send a high-def movie in seconds. Reality-check time: Have any of these people actually shopped for a home broadband connection lately? Have they noticed that Internet2 is a research project confined to a small subset of universities, research institutes and corporations?

The industry can't change its "release window" business model

Throughout the day, speaker after speaker treated the release window--the time in which a movie can only be seen in theaters, after which it can be released on DVD or in other forms--as a given. John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, declared that collapsing this window would destroy the movie industry. I was glad to hear some mutters of discontent in the audience; this is a ridiculous argument to make.

One, what about people who just can't get to a theater to see the movies they want--new parents, people in rural areas, employees who work crazy hours? Right now, those folks' only option is to steal the movie online or wait a few months. Here's a better idea: How about letting them give you their money?

Two, do Fithian and others who hold this view seriously think that movie theaters can't compete with any other viewing experience? (His dire forecast came shortly after a glowing description of "digital cinema" systems that offer many times the resolution of high-definition TV.) Mark Cuban--the Dallas Mavericks owner who also happens to own a theater chain--makes this argument much better than I can.

The industry would be insane not to experiment with release windows. In the same panel discussion, director Steven Soderbergh asked for a first step: giving lower-profile titles the added exposure of a simultaneous release on DVD and in theaters. After all, he noted, nobody's rushing to steal them online anyway: "I tell you, nobody was ripping off The Good German!"

There are real issues to debate here, but the MPAA hurts its cause by leaning on such ridiculous assertions.

And yet it can still get a hearing in town. I guess there's no beating star appeal--when's the last time any tech conference put on by the MPAA's opponents wound up in the Reliable Source?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  February 6, 2007; 7:40 PM ET
Categories:  Video  
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I can speak to your point about not being able to make it to the theatre. As one of those "employees who work[s] crazy hours" (at least until recently), I would often see an ad for a release in the theatres that intrigued me, but not have the time to go to the theatre. By the time it would come out on DVD I'd have forgotten that I'd ever had any interest in it, and I still wouldn't see it.

(Did I hear that there are three new Star Wars movies out now?!)

Posted by: jp | February 7, 2007 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I am with you on not being able to make it to the theater very often. My wife and I have 2 kids and no local family. A night out to dinner and a movie takes planning, finding a babysitter (the good ones are often booked weeks in advance) and not to mention the expense of $30-40 for the sitter on top of the ever escalating movie prices. We see most of our movies from the wonderful collection at the Arlington County library and just recently we are supplementing with a subscription to Netflix. And unless I had Fios available in my 1941 house (not likely any time soon), there's just no way I could even download a even a standard definition movie.

Posted by: Dan | February 8, 2007 11:29 AM | Report abuse

I too can't go to the theater to see a movie. I have a serious disability that makes sitting there impossible without getting up to leave for a while. At home I just stop the DVD or tape and then return to it. I see almost everything on tape off of premium cable.

Posted by: jeff | February 9, 2007 12:21 AM | Report abuse

What people forget is that people like owning stuff and wealthy people like owning stuff even more. People with money to burn are going to spend the bucks, not a bunch of cheapskates. If you can get any amount of revenue from the cheapskates, you're doing well.

Posted by: slar | February 9, 2007 6:08 PM | Report abuse

The introduction in any system of version 11 of Windows Media Player, either in Vista or -- free --out of Vista, is a disaster. Its extent is such as to condemn Microsoft and to send Balmer out of his job. Commerce and culture requires some prerequisites. His engineers lack of them.

The problem.
Player v.11 is anxious to promote sales by section URGE, i.e. to send urgently money to Microsoft through music. It offers a LIBRARY which introduces titles and images of CD sleeves into your system. It imports them automatically from windows media services online.
But they are confused, false and erratic as they have been written by incompetent geeks of music companies on CDs.In mid way those guys forget the name of the composer and place the name of another. Some, with malicious intentions and with the hope of discouraging owners of CDs to place them in their own laptop,wrote disgusting titles (Phillips France CD editions)which frighten children. Such dis-authentifications of music pieces leads to non sense classification in Player v.11 LIBRARY. All its content is pure garbage. It can be deleted definitively.

And Player 11 places its own titles after erasing the titles you spent hundreds of hours correcting and editing manually.
There is no solution to repair the dammage. But at least you can advise new users to prevent it,by unchecking 99% of checking boxes amid the many hundreds placed by Microsoft in multiple options disseminated at every corner of the app. That means cutting any tie with Microsoft until the end of times.And bye bye!
Personally I don't know if my feelings will be cured by adopting Apple iBook but for many that's the safe solution.Apple confuses composers and artists. Beethoven appears as an interpreter! But at least the Player iTunes of Apple does not URGE you to send more money to poor Microsoft.

Posted by: Bernie | February 14, 2007 3:55 PM | Report abuse

I was in a public library.Many people were listening CDs. Some were copying them free.Then went some kind of inspector who reminded them that copying CD is unlawful.
An old man in his eighties asked him: I would be pleased to copy the Bolero of Ravel. But the intellectual rights are still owned by people with no relation with Ravel but who get them protected for another 130 years. May I come then to copy the Bolero. The inspector laughed. He never dared to appear again in the library. (Bernie)

Posted by: Bernie | February 14, 2007 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Copyright Law in United States atleast is grounded in public good, these days copyright law is understood as the right to earn as much money as you can. It is important that these media moguls skip lecturing us about copyright law and enroll themselves in a social ethics class.

Posted by: Gaurav Sood | February 15, 2007 2:37 PM | Report abuse

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