Hollywood’s Anti-Piracy Campaign Runs Aground

With free speech advocates, tech companies and even the White House lining up against it, the industry may face a choice: watered-down legislation or none at all

Last Updated: January 18, 2012 @ 8:36 AM

Tech companies have fired several broadsides at Hollywood's anti-piracy initiatives this week. And while they haven't sunk it, the industry's most significant effort to rein in illegal use of its content is struggling to stay afloat.

Popular sites like Wikipedia and Reddit are shutting down Wednesday in protest, and Google will post a note on its homepage voicing opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act. 

“SOPA is not going anywhere,” Art Brodsky, a spokesman for the digital rights advocacy group Public Knowledge and a major opponent, told TheWrap.  

On Tuesday, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith said the chamber would revisit SOPA in February. But with any momentum for quick passage squandered, the bills very well could founder in the legislature's backwaters. Even if the legislation does move forward, some of its backers might not recognize it when it comes out of committee.

Smith, a Texas Republican, has signaled the House may remove key portions of the bills. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid also has suggested ways to water down his chamber's version, the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). That has only emboldened opponents.

“The sponsors are already pulling back from some of the main points,” Brodsky said. "If you are pulling back on something central to a bill, what about the rest of it?”

Also read: MPAA: It's Time to Stop Obstruction on Anti-Piracy Legislation (Updated)

Still, a vote on PIPA is still slated for Jan. 24, and Hollywood, through the Motion Picture Association of America, has made legislation to stop piracy a top priority. The MPAA says piracy costs the U.S. economy $58 billion and 373,000 jobs annually.

On Tuesday, MPAA chairman and CEO Christopher Dodd dug in his heels.

He called the tech companies' blackouts "irresponsible" and "dangerous," and accused them of “resorting to stunts that punish their users or turn them into their corporate pawns.” 

The battle will be a major test for Dodd, the former Connecticut Senator who landed his MPAA job based in large part on his reputation as a D.C. insider, capable of shepherding major legislation like this.

Also read: 'Free Ride's' Robert Levine on 'Spooky' Google and Hollywood's 'Offensive Excess'

Wednesday's protest will likely spur public awareness of the initiatives, a somewhat ironic situation for Hollywood, which has tried to raise mainstream awareness of piracy for years.

The issue has been bubbling online for months — what would spark more Internet discourse than a perceived attack on Internet free speech?– but many Americans likely took note of the bills late last Friday, when the White House issued what many observers saw as a thinly-veiled veto threat.

While acknowledging that online piracy by web sites in foreign nations is a "serious problem that requires a serious legislative response," the administration warned that it “will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet.” 

The decision to speak out had to be a tough one for President Obama. By doing so, he put himself in the middle of a fight between two of his biggest campaign contributors: Silicon Valley and Hollywood. 

Critics of the anti-piracy legislation had been calling on major companies to participate in the blackout for weeks, but it was only after the White House’s action that Wikipedia and Google jumped into the fray.

An indicator of how complex the issue is for both sides came Monday from Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, a foe of the bills, who ripped the blackouts: "Closing a global business in reaction to single-issue national politics is foolish,” he tweeted.

Also Read: Washington Post, NPR, The Guardian Replace Wikipedia for A Day

 Many opponents of the bills, and even some backers, suggest that a better way to approach the issue might be to let the tech industry find its own solutions.

"We oppose these bills because there are smart, targeted ways to shut down foreign rogue websites without asking American companies to censor the Internet,” Google said in a statement.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who has proposed his own bill, told the Washington Post that his colleagues have finally recognized SOPA and PIPA “contain essential flaws.”

The campaign has put Hollywood in an uncomfortable position, too. The industry's creative types can't be happy about being portrayed as on the wrong side of a battle over free speech. 

No one is claiming to know where the debate will lead, but it would seem at this point Hollywood will have to decide whether a watered-down version of the bill is better than no bill at all.