Digital-age copyright law

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) came to Washington earlier this month to show Capitol Hill, complete with star-studded fanfare, how Hollywood contributes to the national economy. It would seem on its face an odd road trip to make to prove an obvious point, but there is more at work here. As the worlds of technology and content continue to converge in the emerging digital economy, some in the content community, rather than adjust business models to embrace these new technologies, have instead looked to Congress to protect their legacy revenue streams at the expense of innovation.

Few would dispute that the motion picture industry makes an immeasurable contribution to our country, in jobs, creativity and culture. Indeed, new digital technologies have resulted in new distribution mechanisms and revenue streams that were once unimaginable — from movies and music on portable digital devices to television shows from one’s living room watched remotely in hotel rooms across the world.

The MPAA asked Washington to focus on copyright reform in the digital age. The artists and innovators who make up the Digital Freedom campaign are also focused on the need for our copyright laws to be updated. But that reform must be balanced and fair. It should not work solely to benefit the big studios, nor should it prop up legacy business models.  Copyright reform for the digital age must promote approaches that allow artists to reap new revenue, advance new technologies, apply new ideas and allow individuals to take full advantage of the benefits of digital technologies. Indeed, such innovation and creativity are the hallmarks of America’s DNA.

But movies and music would have no audience without the digital audio and video devices that enable consumers to watch and listen to the entertainment produced by these content companies. Perversely, these giants of the content industry attack the very devices that enable their lauded contribution to the nation’s economy. But technological changes are not threats — they are opportunities. Innovative new devices that allow consumers to make anytime-, anywhere-use of content they lawfully acquire means that consumers will now watch movies in their cars and on their mobile phones, and listen to music on their computers and on MP3 players. Such devices create virtually limitless demand for new content. It is therefore critically important for content providers to confine their legislative efforts to the battle against commercial piracy, which is illegal and indefensible, rather than attacking new digital technologies that allow consumers to enjoy content where, when and how they want while opening up new revenue streams for copyright owners. Congress, and the marketplace, should work to promote pro-consumer business models and also ensure that artists are compensated fairly.

Consumers have $750 billion invested in technology in their homes, and spend $250 billion annually on home electronics and services. They should be able to freely use their lawfully acquired content with those devices.

Make no mistake: Consumers should not expect something for nothing, but they certainly expect — and deserve — the freedom to enjoy the content they purchase as they see fit. That is what digital freedom is all about. The content community needs to recognize that it too will benefit from recognizing these rights, as the digital world opens up previously unheard of distribution models, revenue streams and opportunities.

The Digital Freedom campaign came together to provide a voice for artists, innovators and consumers to protect their rights, advocate against any efforts to restrict their ability to use technology to create, innovate and communicate. Digital technology has expanded and democratized creativity, and we should do everything we can to encourage it, not fight it.

Gigi Sohn is a partner in the Digital Freedom campaign. She is the founder and president of Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for entertainment consumers.