Hollywood switches tactics in online piracy fight with Silicon Valley

Hollywood studios and the recording industry are pressuring Silicon Valley to take up the banner against online piracy.

With their preferred legislative solution dead in Congress, entertainment companies are enlisting lawmakers in a public campaign designed to push Google and other search engines into taking action.

That effort began in earnest on Wednesday, when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) released a study that said search engines share blame for the rampant copyright infringement on the Internet.

“Search engines bear responsibility for introducing people to infringing content" and "share a responsibility to play a constructive role," MPAA CEO and former Sen. Chris Dodd said Wednesday.

The day after the study was released, the MPAA announced it was sending a full-time representative to Silicon Valley to try and build bridges in the tech community.

Combining public criticism with private outreach is “risky in some ways,” one tech lobbyist said. “But I think it’s the hand that they have to play.”

The new dynamic is a marked shift from last year, when tech and Hollywood were warring in Congress over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA).

The entertainment industry-sponsored legislation — which would have put the responsibility on websites to police for infringing content — went down in flames after Google and other websites staged a blackout and warned that free speech was at risk.

Content creators have regrouped and learned from the experience, according to Cary Sherman, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Sherman, who testified about the virtues of voluntary anti-piracy agreements to members of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, said his biggest takeaway from the SOPA/PIPA debate was that each side read the legislation differently.

“Everybody reads it for the worst thing that can happen if this becomes law,” he said.

Sherman was adamant that content creators are not trying to resurrect the anti-piracy legislation because it would be counter-productive.

“If we threaten legislation,  … then [tech companies] don’t want to talk at all.” 

The SOPA/PIPA debate was “clearly an indication that legislation is toxic” and has been “a significant factor” in the decision to pursue voluntary agreements, he said.

The entertainment industry is unlikely to try legislation again, “having run directly into the buzzsaw once,” said Matt Schruers, vice president of law and policy and the Computer and Communications Industry Association, which represents Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Instead of pursuing legislation, entertainment companies are trying to prod the tech community into addressing copyright infringement. They say Google could be using “educational messaging,” for instance, to let users know when they’re accessing pirated content, much like the company does when users are visiting sites infected with malware.

“It would simply be educating its users, not stopping them from going” to sites with infringing content, Sherman said.

Tech companies say they’re already taking steps to thwart illegal content. Last year, Google updated its search algorithm to demote search results on sites that received takedown notices for copyright infringing content.

"Internet companies already do a lot to fight piracy,” said Michael Beckerman, CEO of the Internet Association, which represents tech companies and search engines like Google and Yahoo. 

Beckerman pointed to YouTube’s ContentID system, which scans uploaded YouTube videos and alerts copyright holders when a video contains infringing content.

"The [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] works right now. The system works,” he said.

But tech companies, and especially Google, have incentive to do more, even without the threat of legislation hanging over their heads, Sherman said. Beyond the simple desire to “to do the right thing,” Google is looking to become a platform for copyrighted content, he noted.

“It only makes sense for them to be having conversations” with the entertainment industry if it hopes to profit from its content in the future, Sherman said.

Despite the tensions between tech and Hollywood, industry insiders insist their relationship isn’t as strained as it seems.

“In Washington, people are paid to basically throw cold water on the other side,” Sherman said. Outside of the capitol buildings, the relationship between the two industries is much more cooperative, he said.

The RIAA has “been reaching out” to the tech community “for awhile,” Sherman said, often meeting with tech executives face to face to work on “understanding where each side is coming from.”

Beckerman agreed with Sherman’s assessment.

"Outside of DC, there is a lot of good work going on between the two industries," Beckerman said, adding that it's "frustrating" to see the "political posturing" on Capitol Hill.