Hey, Hollywood, Meet Your New Intellectual-Property Czar

Victoria Espinel is leading the Obama administration’s efforts to crack down on piracy, but first she needs to start with her cable guy


The enormous strides in digital distribution and the rise of piracy mean that even though the appetite for content has never been more intense, the desire to pay for it has never been lower.

Enter Victoria Espinel.

Appointed by President Obama last year as the country’s first U.S. intellectual property-enforcement coordinator, Espinel has been tasked with protecting the rights of content creators.

“It’s a brand new job. I’m new to the job, but the job is to create a vision for intellectual property enforcement,” Espinel said at TheGrill on Tuesday afternoon.

Just how big a task she faces in the post was brought home recently when Espinel tried to change cable providers. In demonstrating how well the company’s broadband network handled video streaming, her cable salesman showed her  a bit-torrent site that trafficked in illegal downloads. 

He knew the site was breaking the law, he told her, but said that because it carried advertisements, he didn’t believe federal agents would shut it down.

“He was a nice guy. He wasn’t a criminal,” Espinel said. “It’s important to emphasize that it’s illegal, but on the other hand consumers want what they want, when they want it.”

Not that Espinel is ready to just throw up her hands. The Obama administration, she said, is committed to enforcing intellectual property rights. It’s stepped up its efforts at policing illegal piracy, ramping up the pace of shutting down illegal bit torrent sites such as the one the cable saleman showed her.

It's also considering new legislation to possibly enhance the government’s ability to crack down on piracy in foreign countries such as China, both in the physical and increasingly in digital form.

“So much of the distribution channel is moving to the internet. This government is trying to stay ahead or at least anticipate the problems we’re going to have in five years,” Espinel said, explaining why the administration has put such an emphasis on online piracy.

Espinel said that she is confident that the administration will only succeed in its efforts if it is able bridge the divide between content creators and gadget makers.

“The media often sets this up as irreconcilable death match between Silicon Valley and Hollywood. That’s not my opinion. Nothing I’ve seen in the last few months has changed my belief that tech companies and content makers can work together,” she said.

Espinel was circumspect, though, about what specific moves Obama would take to protect content creators, refusing to say if the White House would get involved in the current lawsuit between Viacom and Google over the technology company’s rights to broadcast its content over its video sharing site YouTube.

Yet the administration has articulated the broad outlines of its approach through the strategic plan to combat intellectual property theft it unveiled last June. That plan identifies several areas of concentration, which Espinel shared with TheGrill audience: lead by example, transparency, coordination, enforcing rights overseas, securing the digital supply chain and making its policies by basing them on data.

Beyond that, she’s open to ideas.

“It may sound corny, but we really want to help. If you create things, you invent things, if you build things, if you depend on intellectual property … we really do want to know your thinking,” Espinel said.