Joe Biden talks piracy strategy with Variety

VP's involvement with issue extends back two decades

Exclusive: When Vice President Joseph Biden appeared at a news conference last summer about copyright theft, he compared it to “smashing the window at Tiffany’s and reaching in and grabbing what’s in” the store.

It was just the kind of hard-line rhetoric that studios and record labels have been yearning to hear from Washington, but even more significant was that it was coming from the nation’s No. 2.

One of Biden’s friends, former Sen. Christopher Dodd, the new chairman of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, said that Biden isn’t just reading from a script when it comes to content protection.

“Joe believes it passionately and understands it intellectually. The marriage of those two doesn’t always happen in this town.”

If anything, the administration’s anti-piracy efforts have been extensive enough to generate criticism from some consumer and digital rights groups that they are too heavy handed. A federal crackdown, which shutdown more than 120 sites trafficking in pirated content, already raised concerns that legitimate sites are being swept up in the effort. And although the issue tends to cross partisan lines, Biden and the administration have strong ties to Hollywood, which was a huge source of donor support for Barack Obama’s campaign, and is expected to play a significant role in his reelection campaign.

The White House, however, was mandated to take a greater role in addressing piracy: A law passed in 2008 and signed by President George W. Bush required the establishment of an intellectual property enforcement coordinator, or a so-called “IP czar.” Drawing more attention to the issue, Biden has appeared several times with IP coordinator Victoria Espinel, including when she has unveiled a strategic plan in June.

In written responses to a series of questions submitted by Variety, Biden said his involvement with the piracy issue extends back two decades to when he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and that his use of the bully pulpit “is really just a continuation of that work.”

“Look, piracy is outright theft,” Biden said. “People are out there blatantly stealing from Americans — stealing their ideas and robbing us of America’s creative energies. There’s no reason why we should treat intellectual property any different than tangible property.”

He is quick to say that he considers it more than a problem of just the entertainment industry. “When our military is sold counterfeit equipment that is faulty, it affects our national security. And when cancer patients are sold fake cancer drugs that contain no medicine, it affects public health. These are serious issues for the American people.”

“Virtually every American company that manufactures something is getting killed by counterfeiters: clothing, software, jewelry, tires,” Biden said. “If an American company has been successful at developing an idea, it’s likely getting stolen.”

But getting that point across has been difficult.

Although the MPAA and studios have for years run PSA campaigns, they have been of questionable effectiveness.

And while Biden tries to connect the issue to the average worker, in the minds of middle America Hollywood is red carpets, lavish salaries and Charlie Sheen.

“I think the entertainment industry would agree that they have done a poor job in making their case and need to do better,” Biden said. “I mean, they have some of the brightest and most creative people working for them.”

“They should be able to come up with an intelligent, original and effective public education campaign targeting this issue. To be honest, I am not certain they have dedicated the appropriate resources to this, and I hope they will.”

He says that the administration also sees a government role in a public awareness campaign, which is “a big part of our strategy.” The Justice Department is providing funds to the National Crime Prevention Council, including messages geared toward kids.

“Kids are taught that it is not right to steal a lollipop from the corner store,” he said. “They also need to understand that it is equally wrong to knowingly steal a movie or a song from the Internet.”

Biden held an “intellectual property summit’ in December, 2009 that brought together cabinet secretaries as well as studio chiefs and reps from other copyright industries, with the intent of mobilizing enforcement efforts. Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairman and CEO Tom Rothman, who attended another gathering in January that included Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, said that “in many ways [Biden’s] personal commitment to it is a breakthrough for us” as he has tied “the issue’s importance to the overall health of the American economy.”

Sony’s Michael Lynton, who attended the first summit, said that he doesn’t know what the impact has been on public opinion, but in the administration, “it has certainly galvanized everybody around this issue.” Although it is uncertain if public perception of piracy has changed, Mitch Bainwol, the CEO of the Recording Industry Assn. Of America, says that at the very least “anytime the vice president speaks there is a wider audience.”

Biden doesn’t buy the idea that Hollywood’s effort to increase enforcement is merely to protect dying businesses.

“The fact is, media companies have already taken significant steps to adapt their business models to keep up with changes in how we watch movies and listen to music,” Biden said. “Content is being offered to consumers in a variety of different ways that make it easy and cost-effective for people to access legal material. Anyone who does not understand this should simply talk with one of my grandkids.”

In the next few weeks, legislation is expected to be introduced to give federal prosecutors and customs officials a quicker process to get sites offering pirated content shut down, as well as to choke the money supply flowing to foreign sites from payment processors and ad firms.

A version of the bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously late last year, but Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) helped block it from going to the floor because of concerns that it could infringe on free-speech rights. Biden said he’s been working with senators to craft legislation “that helps protect property while at the same time respects any potential Constitutional issues. I am hopeful that we will be able to reach an agreement that is agreeable to all parties.”

Where Biden says he hopes “we won’t need to legislate” is in industry efforts to get Internet providers to inform their customers when they have downloaded or streamed pirated content. Under a “three strikes” law in France, customers who repeatedly view infringing content risk having their service suspended.

Instead, Biden’s office has been working with studios and record labels and Internet providers to reach some kind of voluntary agreement to establish standards “that provides greater education to those who might be downloading or streaming illegal content.”

Biden said he sees a shift in China, where piracy is rampant and where Hollywood has long struggled to gain cooperation from the government to address the problem. He said South Korea’s strengthened intellectual property laws have led to the “Korean Wave” in entertainment across Asia, and “China’s leaders understand this.”

When President Hu Jintao visited the U.S. in January, China agreed to take new steps to protect copyrighted material, but Biden said that further efforts will be required “if China is to fulfill its ambition to build a more innovative economy.”

Biden is being presented with one of the Recording Academy’s Grammys on the Hill awards today.