Letters to the town’s new lobbyist

Guest column

Dear Secretary Glickman:

Congratulations on your appointment as the new president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. As you get up to speed on the ins and outs of Hollywood, we in the consumer advocacy community would like to offer some advice.

Your biggest challenge will be to change the mindset of your members who view your customers, and digital technology, as their enemies. Now is the time to break that cycle, start fresh and move your industry’s attitudes into the 21st century, instead of keeping them rooted in the mid-20th century.

Consumers are not the enemy. We are not “pirates.” We are your customers — the people who buy tickets to the movies and buy DVDs. Movie theater attendance and DVD sales are at all-time highs. So your basic distribution system isn’t going away. In fact, we predict it’s only going to get better.

Does the motion picture industry have a problem today with large-scale copyright infringement? Of course it does, as it always has. But your real enemies aren’t consumers and the Internet. They are the commercial pirates who produce hundreds of thousands of illegal DVDs from manufacturing facilities here and abroad.

Consumers are people who enjoy and are willing to pay for your product, but we also have certain rights and obligations. We don’t have the right to steal it from you, but we do have the right to something called “fair use.”

It’s not realistic to insist that consumers can’t make even one backup copy of a DVD they have purchased. The software industry went through that debate 20 years ago and decided backup copies are legitimate. Here’s another example: Should artists or teachers be able to use clips of movies in their work? Of course they should, without fear of being sued. Fair use is a flexible concept, based on rulings on individual cases in court. But it is a concept that has existed in law for years, and should not be trampled.

Technology is not the enemy. It’s ironic that an industry that depends so much on sophisticated computer technology to create and enhance its products doesn’t take a more enlightened view of the technology that exists to distribute product to its customers. Take, for example, the fact that purchasers of DVDs can’t fast-forward through the previews or ads on some discs. If a customer tries to change that, he would violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which prohibits the breaking of technological “locks.”

If a DVD will play on one type of computer operating system, but not another, a customer should be able to adapt the disc to his machine. But under the current legal regime, he can’t. It should be the other way around: Consumers should control technology, not Hollywood.

Faster broadband networks will pose a challenge to your industry. But you should look at these developments as an opportunity, not as a barrier. Twenty years ago, you almost killed the golden goose when you sued Sony all the way to the Supreme Court to gain control over consumer use of VCRs.

I urge you not to make the same mistake with digital technologies and services. The truth is that your customers like and use broadband services, peer-to-peer networks and wireless networks, and they will pay for reasonably priced, high-quality content delivered over those systems. Like the VCR, you can, and should, make these technologies work to your industry’s financial benefit.

Best of luck in your new job. Let us know if we can help.

Gigi B. Sohn is president of Public Knowledge, a Washington technology policy watchdog group that tracks intellectual property law.

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