Why Hollywood Is Losing the Public Relations War on Piracy (Analysis)

The entertainment industry's biggest mistakes in advocating stronger IP laws.
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On Wednesday, to protest President Barack Obama’s decision to withhold unilateral support for a new anti-piracy law, Hollywood has decided to suspend all film productions for a day. In addition, the major TV networks have announced plans to axe all shows that might be critical favorites with small, fervent fan bases, but haven’t mustered enough ratings to make a sizeable profit.

Of course, none of the above is really happening. For innovative forms of protest, look elsewhere.

Instead, Hollywood is taking the derailment of major new intellectual property laws in stride, stressing the positives – “We welcome the Administration's clear statement that legislation is needed to stop foreign based thieves…” – and probably ignoring its own failings.

What happened? Putting aside the merits of the legislation for a moment, how does an industry that is supposed to earn its bread in churning out compelling messages lose a PR war? How does an industry that’s rife with creative individuals appear so stodgy in arguing for reform? And maybe most of all – how is it that the entertainment and media sectors, which have long been some of the strongest advocates of free speech in the nation, get painted as being the enemy of the First Amendment?

For the past year, the entertainment industry relied on its old playbook and clearly underestimated its opponents. Here are a few of the errors from Hollywood in its pursuit of stronger laws combating piracy:

Mistake #1 --Much of the legislation was negotiated behind closed doors.

The film industry has long maintained a pretty strong lobbying force. This is a blessing as well as a curse.

There might have been doubts that an esoteric issue like intellectual property would ever muster public interest or outrage, but when you believe in a cause, you don’t act like Haliburton or Exxon.


By the time Congress took up debate on the issues, the legislation had the stink of being crafted in backrooms. Even if Hollywood is right on the need for more protections, the privately negotiated “Stop Online Piracy Act” entered the public sphere just at the moment that corporate influence has become a toxic issue among the American population.

Mistake #2 – The legislation has been defended on broad generalities and dubious statistics.

The battle over piracy legislation is often dumbed down to be a battle between Hollywood and Silicon Valley over the need to protect content versus technological innovation.

Hollywood seems to have accepted the way this debate has been framed.

As those in the tech sector point to all the great websites that have popped up in recent years – Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. – Hollywood has pinned its defense of anti-piracy laws on the need to protect jobs. As critics of the legislation pick apart potential statutory obligations that would create burdens and threaten the workings of these websites, Hollywood has avoided debating opponents on the merits of the proposed laws, instead trying in vain to showcase research about the number of jobs threatened by the prevalence of piracy.

Making an argument on jobs might seem like a winning political one in a tough economic climate. But increasingly, the tech sector is seen as the engine of economic growth in this nation. Hollywood’s estimates of piracy’s economic damage have been picked apart by observers, but more importantly, arguing about the economic sufferings of one industry sector rings hollow as another industry sector thrives. It’s like arguing against the use of robotics in manufacturing because it takes away American jobs on the assembly line. Maybe true, but preservation of the way an old industry used to work is not a very compelling reason for legislation. Meanwhile…

Mistake #3: Hollywood has ceded the high ground on being an innovator and defender of speech.

If anybody in Hollywood really believes they aren’t losing the PR war, check out this column from Slate’s Matthew Yglesias. He writes:

“For the economy as a whole, I've never seen any compelling evidence that online piracy is in fact a real problem. If it was a real problem, you would expect the problem to manifest itself in the form of consumers with cash in their pockets finding themselves unable to find songs to listen to or films or TV shows to watch.”

No doubt, many in entertainment will shrug this off this statement as being wrong on its face. But that would ignore the reality that in the heads of many like-minded individuals, the issue of piracy has suddenly become a zero-sum equation: If films and TV shows are still being created, there’s really no problem. Nothing to see here. Move on.

Hollywood has contributed to this sentiment with overreaching statements about piracy obliterating the creative industry. And to be sure, the tech industry deserves some scorn as well for their own overreactions that intellectual property laws mean the wholesale blacking out of speech and progress.

This isn’t the only way to have a big, open conversation about laws. There are already laws on the books that crack down on piracy and aim to preserve free speech. The legislation and enforcement are far from perfect. Both sides would agree on that.

It’s also true that piracy -- or pricing pressures on content – also influences the quality of speech in the marketplace, what kinds of content gain investment from publishers and studios, and the decisions that emerging artists or authors make when forging their nascent careers. Right now, few people are talking about that.

E-mail: eriqgardner@yahoo.com

Twitter: @eriqgardner