MPAA Chief Chris Dodd 'Hurt,' Defends His Piracy Strategy, Slams Obama and Google (Q&A)
As the SOPA legislation hangs by a thread, Hollywood's top lobbyist says he's not to blame for the backlash.
Nine months into his tenure as chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, former Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd finds himself in the middle of a war. Proposed legislation (SOPA in the House, PIPA in the Senate) to combat piracy by foreign websites is on the verge of collapse amid criticism from such tech titans as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and such political heavyweights as President Obama. Critics say the entertainment industry is losing the PR war and has allowed the tech community to define the debate. On Wednesday afternoon, Dodd answered his critics, defended his strategy and talked in an exclusive interview with THR's Alex Ben Block.
The Hollywood Reporter: Almost everyone agrees that piracy of movies and TV shows is wrong. But the opponents of the SOPA and PIPA legislation have effectively characterized this as a debate about issues such as the First Amendment and Internet security.
Chris Dodd: [Security issues have] to do with what they call the Domain Name Systems, or DNS systems, and the filtering or blocking of those DNS systems. I think 25 or 30 countries have imposed that. The industry itself has. But in response to the criticism a week or so ago, the two chairs of the committees, respectively, in the Senate and House dropped the DNS provisions of the bill entirely. So it doesn’t exist any longer. And even when it was in the bill, it was completely misrepresented as something new that was going to break the Internet. If that was the case, the Internet would have broken a long time ago given that DNS filtering has gone on all over the world for years.
THR: You and the MPAA are OK with dropping that provision.
Dodd: Well, we don’t like it, but to try and get people together to support a bill that will do some good, in one of those rare moments when everyone agrees that foreign criminal sites stealing American content and jobs ought to be stopped — we're not debating about what ought to be done. The question is how do you do it. DNS filtering is a very effective way of doing that. It's been used on child pornography, to block phishing and all sorts of activities that can put the Internet at risk. But obviously it's something the Google crowd didn’t want to have done, so they took it out of the bill. It hasn’t been there.
THR: As a veteran legislator, you realize compromise is often necessary.
Dodd: Absolutely. There isn’t a bill I’ve ever worked on in over 49 years of the legislative process that you don’t compromise on. So I’m a great advocate of doing it. You don’t want to compromise your principles on things and you don’t want to give away everything so your bill ends up being meaningless, but the decision was to drop that. They felt they had a good bill without it and I don’t disagree with that.
THR: How do you answer critics who say this legislation would be a threat to free speech online?
Dodd: That’s the most offensive line of all. First of all, think about who the two authors of this bill are — Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Democrat, chairman of the Judiciary committee, member of the Judiciary Committee for 38 years, one of the greatest advocates of First Amendment free speech rights; John Conyers of Michigan, African-American member who's been on the Judiciary committee for years, as the chief co-sponsor of the House bill; Howard Berman, not likely to be associating himself with any effort that would deny people freedom of speech. The film and television business, the greatest advocates of free speech and the ones who have had to fight for it so many times over the years, would never be involved. Illegal conduct is not protected by the First Amendment. The Internet is not a law-free zone. It doesn’t create exceptions for illegal activity. Stealing is wrong. The First Amendment doesn’t protect stealing. There’s nothing in this bill in any manner, shape or form that would deprive people of their First Amendment rights.
You know the great H.L. Menken line: "When they tell you it's not about the money, it's about the money." So they bring up freedom of speech, break the Internet. But the fact of the matter is, it’s a huge revenue stream off of this.
THR: And how do you answer critics who say the legislation would hamper innovation on the web?
Dodd: That was the same argument made 14 years ago when the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was adopted. And it’s the same argument — the sky is falling. You only need to go back and take a cursory look to see what happened in the last 14 years, the advances and innovations in technology despite the claims in 1998 [of what would happen] if [Congress] passed that act. It did not break the Internet. It did not deprive anyone of freedom of speech at all. And it certainly did not curtail or stymie creative innovation in new technology.
THR: They also say it will slow growth in the technology sector.
Dodd: Again, that was sort of the argument 14 years ago. There’s no great surprise. This has happened in other areas of the law where the operators of these illegal sites realized they were subject to the jurisdiction of U.S. courts and injunctions brought by the Attorney General, who is the only one who can bring an injunction to shut down one of these places by the way, contrary to what they say in some of their criticisms of the bill. These guys are off-shore. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out if you want to avoid the jurisdiction of American courts then go someplace beyond their reach. So we’ve realized we have to do something to go after these foreign sites that are now proliferating and [causing] the same problems the domestic sites were that the legislation covered 14 years ago. That’s all this does.
THR: How do you feel about those in Congress who supported this legislation but now have come out against it?
Dodd: Look, I’ve never tried to be critical of people’s motivations and why they do what they do. But it's awfully difficult to explain how sponsors and co-sponsors can do this. This bill was around long before me. They recruited me nine months ago to get involved. This legislation had been pending for some time. And this bill has had hearings. The Senate and House bill are somewhat different, but nonetheless it isn’t something that sprang up a week or two ago. It has passed the Judiciary committee 19 to nothing. Hearings were held on it. Every amendment discussed by the House committee was defeated on average 24 to 8, and there were any number of amendments considered by that committee. That was only a few days ago. Obviously what happened is those — particularly Google — who are opposed to the legislation, they don’t want [the law] to happen because [search related to piracy is] a major revenue raiser for them, not because of freedom of speech or breaking the Internet. They make a lot of money off that and I understand they don’t want to be hurt economically. But they’ve unleashed a lot of misinformation and motivated and energized thousands of people on the Internet to communicate to their congressmen, senators and others to be against the legislation. And they’ve been effective in scaring people off. I hate to describe it that way, but how else can I say it.
THR: So the members of Congress who have in recent days gone from supporters to opponents of these bills, are they being influenced by money from the tech lobby?
Dodd: I’m not going to speculate on the motives of why people are doing what they are doing. But obviously it hurts to watch people [flip] who played such a critical role in helping us put together this legislation. If DNS technology was going to cause a problem, then let's see if we can do something else and drop that and see what will work in its place. That’s the hard work of legislating. If everyone agrees that rogue foreign sites are dangerous, that [they threaten] 2.2 million people who work in the television and film industry across America, who get up every morning and take a job in this business — the department of labor tells me on average the people who work in this industry make $55,000 a year, and they have good pensions and good health care plans — these jobs are at stake and at risk. And we’ve seen already what can happen when these rogue sites steal these productions. … We all agree on that. So here’s an effort, let's do something about that. And now all of a sudden I find people are sending e-mails with false information, accusing Pat Leahy, Howard Berman, John Conyers, Joe Biden, who was helpful in this, do they think they’re all anti-First Amendment? Come on. Please!
THR: What about President Obama and the White House? They seemed to favor the bill, then over the weekend they came out against it. Now we hear he may be looking for a compromise.
Dodd: All I know is they took the position last Friday night despite the fact that Pat Leahy and Lamar Smith, the respective chairmen of the two committees, had dropped the DNS provisions, which the White House had said they were concerned about. But it had already been dropped by the time they issued the statement, and they decided to put it out anyway. It appeared in the statement they were opposed to the bill, and of course it hurt.
THR: Have you heard from the White House since then?
Dodd: No, I haven’t. No. I know others have been talking to them and there’s still an opportunity to get a bill done. At least I'd like to believe there is. I know others are working on it. You know, I’m under legal prohibitions. I can't talk to people I served with for 30 years [in Congress]. I can talk to them about their families, but I can’t talk to them about anything legislatively.
THR: Hollywood has supported President Obama in many ways, even when others have not. And now he seems to have turned against it on an issue very important to the industry. Are there discussions between industry leaders and the White House at all right now?
Dodd: I’m sure there are. I’m not aware of them myself. Obviously, these [MPAA member] companies all have their own relationships with the White House. I know at this juncture there is still an opportunity to get a good bill done. Since the White House has involved themselves in this debate, they have an opportunity to pull some people together and help us get a bill passed. If they want to do that, they can still play a constructive role, but up until now they haven’t been willing to play that role. They’ve taken a position on the bill which seemed terribly negative to people in this community, but the door is still open for them to play a constructive role, but its entirely up to them whether they want to play that role.
THR: To pass this bill needs 60 votes in the Senate to get cloture. Some say now you don’t have the votes and this legislation can’t be passed. What do you think?
Dodd: We may not. I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not in the business now of counting. All I can do is rely on what other people tell me and I know that there are people trying to put together a bill that can attract some support. A different approach. Some new ideas may allow us to do something that would bring people together and garner the necessary votes to invoke cloture and pass a bill. How successful that will be, I don’t know. I can tell you the efforts are being made between now and Tuesday when that cloture vote is scheduled.
THR: Some in Hollywood are saying that if this law doesn’t go forward, they will blame you. Is it your fault?
Dodd: (Laughs.) It sounds like I haven’t left the old job I used to have. I used to get that when I served in the Senate. It comes with the turf. If you’re going to be in a public position and fight hard for the passage of things, and it doesn’t work out exactly as you would like, there are always going to be some, I suppose, who want to lay the blame at your doorstep. That’s the way it goes. I’m doing the best I can, working with some great companies, great people, it’s a great industry, and I’m exhibit A. If you asked me 10 months ago about this industry, I probably wouldn't have disagreed with someone who said it was a red-carpet business, that Oscar night and people who made terrific salaries were what it was about. I had no idea about the 2.2 million people, the blue-collar guys, those who drive trucks and make this industry work, I had no idea about this, and I don’t think I was unique in that regard. There a huge gap.
I think the reason the Internet community went after Hollywood is because they didn’t dare take on the defense industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the aerospace industry, with all of the counterfeiting that goes on, 19 million jobs are involved in one way or another with intellectual property jobs, copyright, the film and television businesses, if you take it all together, it's around that number. The film and television industries bring back more money to this country than aerospace, automobiles or agriculture. This is a major economic powerhouse and today when we're talking about job creation and protecting jobs, you can be a high school graduate, get a couple of years of good technical training, and get a good job in the film and television industry. You tell me what other business in America where that is the case today. When people go after this industry, they do it because of misimpressions about it. They don’t go after the other ones because they know they will probably lose. It's frustrating to me. But I’m going to keep battling. We will win this case eventually.