I’m a filmmaker whose business is threatened by piracy – and site blocking could be my lifeline

an image of a movie theater

In the weeks before all of our lives were changed by COVID-19, I was honored to testify in the U.S. Senate about the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and its “safe harbor” provision that allows internet companies to dodge liability for copyright infringement on their platforms. I made the case that piracy is out of control 22 years after the law’s passage, and that we need better laws and better enforcement to reverse the huge losses.

I make my living in the entertainment business. My partner, Jeffrey Greenstein and I, are co-presidents of Millennium Media, an independent film company whose catalog includes franchises such as “The Expendables”, “Hellboy”, the “Has Fallen” series, “Hitman’s Bodyguard”, and “Rambo.” Our films have grossed more than $1 billion globally, each year adding to the core copyright industries’ annual contribution of $1.3 trillion to the U.S. GDP.

Our films have been pirated hundreds of millions of times – and much of that piracy is facilitated by one of the world’s richest companies: Google.

In fact, when we last audited piracy of our films on Google-owned YouTube a few years ago, we found over 200 pirated versions of our titles, and they had been viewed more than 110 million times. Those numbers have grown substantially since.

Piracy is not only killing creative businesses, but creative individuals, as well. According to a 2019 report from the U.S. Chamber, piracy causes at least $29.2 billion in lost revenue to the U.S. each year. The Chamber report also found that “digital video piracy” alone results in losses of between 230,000 and 560,000 American jobs every year.

YouTube, the world’s biggest video platform, is a significant part of the problem – but it does not have to be this way.

YouTube actually has sophisticated content protection tools, such as Content ID and Content Verification Program (CVP), that they provide to some copyright owners. YouTube has complete discretion whether to grant someone access to these tools, and their decision-making process is, shall we say, opaque.

In December, I attended a congressional roundtable with other artists whose livelihoods are affected by piracy on YouTube. We pleaded with a team of Google lawyers and lobbyists to give all content creators an effective content protection tool. I asked them: Why was it necessary for creatives to beg for tools that already exist, simply to protect their livelihoods?

Google had no answers, nor did they commit to offering these tools to creatives everywhere. They did, eventually, grant my company access to CVP, but only because I flew all the way to Washington. But that doesn’t help all the other creatives who cannot afford to fly to D.C. to beg for it. And why should they have to?

Which brings me back to where we began, my testimony in the Senate about how they might change the 22-year- old, grossly outdated DMCA to work better for creatives and the business as a whole.

The Silicon Valley mouthpieces at the hearing argued that the safe harbor in the DMCA – which gives internet companies legal immunity from piracy on their platforms so long as they respond to individual takedown notices – protects “free speech and innovation.” But they know, as well as I do, that the piracy of full-length copies of my films has nothing to do with “free speech.” They also know, as I do, that criminal operations running piracy sites are not “innovating” when they steal my movies.

I urged Congress to consider some important changes to the law. At least 34 countries around the world, including Australia, Canada, and the UK, have laws that allow courts to direct internet service providers to block pirate websites. Many years of studies have shown that when the tool is used for blocking known, adjudicated pirate sites, it is highly successful at reducing piracy. Free speech and democracy have not been harmed – despite the doomsday arguments by Google’s defenders.

I have seen first-hand the positive effect that site blocking has on the movie business. My partners in the UK and other territories are more willing to pay better license fees because they know the risk of losing their investment to piracy has been reduced.

In 1998, Congress could not have envisioned that a company like Google would be receiving nearly a billion takedown notices every year. It could not have anticipated the burden this would place on copyright holders, or the harm to their businesses.

America should be a leader in copyright policy, because we are the world’s leader in creativity. Perhaps we can restore this leadership with a healthy balance of updates to the law and by prodding the big internet platforms like YouTube to be more accountable for the piracy that they enable. #StandCreative

Jonathan Yunger is Co-President of Millennium Media, an independent film company whose movies include franchises such as The Expendables, Hellboy, the Has Fallen series, Hitman’s Bodyguard, and Rambo.


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