By Ruth Vitale
One of the most important lessons I have learned in my three-plus decades as a film executive is the importance of storytelling. The biggest budget and the most famous stars in the world will rarely save a film if the narrative is broken. If audiences cannot follow the story, the film is most often doomed to fail.
Now, as an advocate for filmmakers and the 5.7 million other creative individuals who make their living in the core copyright industries, it’s my job to tell the story of the harm piracy does to the economically and culturally vital creative community. This story is obviously not destined for the screen. It is real life. But it can still sometimes feel like a bad movie – because often, the narrative is broken, twisted into something unrecognizable by the world’s biggest internet companies, who profit from the theft of creative works on their very own platforms, and by advocates who, for financial or ideological or other hard-to-fathom reasons, also spread misinformation.
It was once a given that taking or using without permission someone else’s creation – and profiting from it – was wrong. But in recent years, fostered by Big Tech money and influence, an army of legal, academic, and journalistic acolytes created a culture of contempt not just toward creative works themselves, but the time, effort, money, and people who make them.
We see this attitude reflected in the sheer statistics involving streaming piracy, which costs the U.S. economy at least $29.2 billion a year and at least 230,000 jobs. Google alone recently processed its five-billionth takedown notice from copyright owners – a figure that exposes a staggering indifference. Google would rather process billions of individual takedown notices than fix its piracy problem at the systemic level. Many uploaders blithely accept the idea that any copyrighted upload constitutes a fair use so long as it is labeled as such (a “misunderstanding” that Google makes no effort to correct). Other users are blissfully unaware of the piracy problem at all, while still others turn hostile at the slightest hint that piracy is a problem at all.
“Hello False Flag,” wrote one representative commenter on one of our recent Facebook posts about piracy on YouTube. “In the piracy you’re imagining… you censor your users’ Free Speech civil rights.”
“Do you want cheese with your whine?” inquired another commenter.
And: “F*** off,” read yet another “enlightened” comment. “Stop trying to commoditize culture, capitalist vultures.”
Of course, hostile commentary is a feature, not a bug, of today’s internet. But it has been cultivated by a decades-long campaign by Big Tech shills and other anti-copyright devotees, who have tried to paint our creative industries as greedy and old-fashioned, and Silicon Valley as virtuous and innovative. In their version of the story, creative people are the bad guys. How dare they expect fair compensation for their years of hard work, putting their capital and resources at risk?
For anyone with the slightest awareness of the creative process, that tale seems ludicrous on its face, and yet, as evidenced by the comments above, this broken narrative resonates with too many people.
My industry has tried to change this paradigm by telling our community’s stories of how it feels to be stolen from, by fighting for stronger copyright protections online, and by working to hold internet companies accountable for the content on their platforms. In response, Silicon Valley’s minions have railed against us, painting us as crony capitalists shilling for Hollywood fat cats looking to get fatter. Here’s the irony, that is finally becoming clear to everyone: in defending Silicon Valley, these “digital activists” help to line the pockets of our digital overlords, while the creative communities – whose content gets stolen and whose work gets denigrated – get the short end of the stick.
“You could merge the world’s top five advertising agencies (WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, IPG, and Dentsu) with five major media companies (Disney, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox, CBS, and Viacom),” wrote the marketing guru Scott Galloway, “and still need to add five major communications companies (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter, and Dish) to get only 90 percent of what Google and Facebook are worth together.”
How do you change the minds of people who clearly love creative content – but think it’s okay to steal what they love? How do you get them to understand how bizarre it is that they would hand over the most minute details of their private lives to the world’s most sophisticated surveillance operations, in return for “free” access to valuable (and stolen) content that some of their fellow human beings spent immeasurable quantities of time and resources making?
If I had the answer, I would not be writing this – but I know this much: The solution starts by holding Big Tech more accountable for its own bad behavior and that of its users.
Things may be changing at long last. After years of being the Belle of the Ball in Washington, Big Tech is finally under serious scrutiny in Congress. Antitrust suits and hearings with Mark Zuckerberg are the big newsmakers, but there is just as much action – if not more – happening in the creative policy space.
In 2020, lawmakers finally undertook a serious reassessment of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and its flawed and outdated provisions that give platforms a free pass when it comes to cleaning up piracy. The year also ended with the passage of two landmark copyright laws: the Protecting Lawful Streaming Act (PLSA), which makes large-scale commercial streaming piracy operations subject to felony prosecution; and the Copyright Alternative in Small-Claims Enforcement (CASE) Act, which creates a tribunal for small-scale infringement claims so creative individuals and small businesses don’t have to go through expensive litigation in federal court to protect themselves against piracy.
These developments clearly signal a changing attitude on Capitol Hill regarding piracy and Big Tech’s role in it. But the efforts by Big Tech to push the upside-down anti-creativity narrative persist.
In the film industry, fixing a story is a collaborative effort. Turning creatives into antagonists because they fight against large-scale commercial piracy of their work is the kind of storyline that begs to be repaired. I think the most important edit starts with the behavior of Facebook and Google, who should do a better job of educating their users about the value of creative works and the importance of protecting those works against piracy.
Then, if their actions would match those words, this story could actually have a happy ending.