Showbiz may be able to recast piracy debate

Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom could be a useful villain

The story of Kim Dotcom, the founder of file-hosting site Megaupload arrested in January on charges of masterminding massive criminal copyright infringement, is starting to sound like something out of a Roger Moore-era James Bond pic: He changed his surname from Schmitz, he’s six-foot-five and weighs nearly 300 pounds and, according his legal team, he was captured when helicopters swooped in to his New Zealand estate and apprehended him.

In an interview with a New Zealand paper this week, Dotcom predicted he would prevail and called his arrest “political.”

Dotcom may be thinking political, but as his case evolves, perhaps Hollywood should be thinking PR.

Still stinging from the sidelining of the Stop Online Piracy Act, which happened the same week as the seizure of Megaupload, showbiz has been in a period of consternation over what to do next. On the Oscar carpet, MPAA chairman-CEO Chris Dodd said that there’s been bridge building between showbiz and Silicon Valley, and “There are some very adult, mature people working on coming up with some answers that make sense.”

But beyond the policymaking, there’s also the matter of winning hearts and minds, a vexing problem for an industry viewed by much of Middle America with disdain. PSAs get lost in a blizzard of multiple messaging. Trailers have elicited groans from moviegoers. A large-scale public awareness campaign on par with those that shifted public perception of seatbelts and drunk driving would be a costly, years-long effort, perhaps with inconclusive results.

The PR battle is no small thing: By the time the SOPA debate entered the public consciousness, opponents had crafted the message with the emotional alarm, even if the legislation’s supporters cried foul over what they say was a campaign of misinformation.

“The unfortunate thing in this debate is we in the film and television industry, we are not a victim that garners a lot of sympathy to the average citizen,” Michael Robinson, MPAA exec VP, content protection and chief of operations, said at a panel on piracy earlier this week before the Caucus for Producers, Writers and Directors. “The argument we constantly hear, especially from young people engaging in the downloading of content, is, ‘Who is it really hurting?’ All the stars make big money. All the stars are well paid.”

The industry went in with a message of protecting jobs, but the debate ended up being about big media trying to stifle free speech. Robinson said the sixth-grade son of one of his employees came home at the height of the debate and asked, “Dad, why do you want to work for that outfit that wants to break the Internet?”

Talking to the panelists, it’s apparent how much the industry’s approach has been caught between the carrot and the stick.

Some independent filmmakers are going so far as to file suit against consumers who download their movies illegally, but Kent Raygor, partner at Sheppard Mullin, noted that such an approach “is really expensive and it is terribly ineffective. It is sort of like the old game of whack-a-mole.”

James Gladstone, exec VP of business and legal affairs for Lionsgate, suggested deploying stars to do trailers “to explain why this law is good for people, both the service providers and the industry.”

Vin Di Bona, who has formed a venture to track and even monetize clips of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” given the routine unauthorized uploads on YouTube, thinks an education campaign has to start in junior high. “That may be Pollyana-ish, I am not sure. But it is a potential start.”

Melinda Demsky, senior VP of content protection for Fox, said that despite efforts to even get piracy into school curriculums, “You wonder the way the messaging is being received.”

Instead of digital theft, as the showbiz lobby puts it, to others piracy of movies, music and TV shows is seen “more like this infraction,” Demsky said. “That is a dangerous way of framing it that is coming from some of the more sophisticated players.”

But depending on how the story of Dotcom is played, there’s a chance for the debate to shift again, particularly if he is extradited to the U.S. and gets a very public trial. At least in the eyes of federal authorities and many in the industry, piracy now has a face that isn’t the college student hacker or the small business tech wiz but someone who had a fleet of luxury cars, spent lavishly on vacations on superyachts and cost copyright holders at least $500 million in lost revenue. He seems to savor the publicity: Before he was caught, he boasted of being the world’s leading player of the vidgame “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.”

He’s arguing that he’s the unfair target of an overzealous copyright army; as showbiz wages its war against piracy, it may have found a colorful villain it can make use of.

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