Tech 10 Outspend MPAA on Lobbying 30:1

I was recently on the lot at Warner Brothers in Burbank, and the movie studio has indeed undergone some major changes in response to threats from the Internet industry.  What used to be a marketing department has been transformed into a cubicle farm now known on the QT as the Department for Breaking the Internet.  Similarly, the building where writers once banged out classic screenplays is now the Division for Chilling Free Speech.  And while there is only speculation that file sharers are being abducted and tortured, I was pretty sure I heard screams when a door swung open on a soundstage claiming to be home to the Ellen DeGeneres Show.

Meanwhile, back in reality . . .

You know how we still see headlines that tell us Hollywood and the Government are in cahoots to . . . (insert violation of civil liberty here)?  Well, you can feel secure calling bullshit on that premise at least insofar as lobbying dollars go because Hollywood is a penny-ante player in that game.  Despite the persistent notion that the almighty MPAA wields some unlimited lobbying budget with which it manhandles Washington, here’s the facts, Jack:  According to this report from Consumer Watchdog, 10 major tech firms spent $61.5 million on lobbying in 2013 with Google (who else?) leading that crowd with its own $14.06 million.  By contrast, the MPAA, whose budget comes from combined contributions from the major media companies, spent a little under $2.2 million in 2013 according to the Lobbying Disclosure site hosted by the US House of Representatives.  That’s a 30:1 ratio for the 10 firms v the MPAA, or a 7:1 ratio looking just at Google v the MPAA.

So, sure we can have a big ol’ national palaver about the influence of money in politics, but anyone who thinks big tech is the David to the media industry’s Goliath is just a sucker.  Meanwhile, like them or not, what major motion picture studios spend their money on is film and television production.  Protecting IP and fighting piracy is a pain the ass and an expense to protect investments. By contrast, the lobbying dollars spent by many of these technology companies are an investment in rewriting policy — copyrights, patents, privacy, etc.  — that could have a dramatic effect on their future growth.  This is one reason we’re not likely to see the MPAA ever compete on a level, lobbying playing field, even if they had the financial resources to do so.  At the same time, the major studios and networks combined employ more Americans than Google, and even all those jobs still don’t represent the majority of people who work in the motion picture industry.  So, really the whole narrative of Silicon Valley as underdog is multi-dimensionally false as well as insulting.

© 2014, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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23 comments

  • Mightn’t it make more sense to compare the lobbying expenses of lobbying organizations, or companies to companies? Disney, for example, disclosed over $3 million in lobbying expenses in 2013.

    • Yep. Much more sense. How much, overall, did the top ten tech companies spend to the top ten entertainment companies? Comparing ten individual companies to one lobbying organisation isn’t that illuminating.

      • Fair enough, Sam and Parker. It’s also reasonable to get into what issues each company is lobbying about because they all have different areas of concern. I simply used this shorthand to mute the constant drumbeat that the MPAA is an all-powerful body when it comes to lobbying.

      • Thanks. Good consolidation of the House numbers. Just a quick sampling reveals still relatively low dollars spent by the entertainment giants as a group. If I’m reading it right, even Disney’s $3 million is mostly activity not related to its production of filmed entertainment. With so many conglomerates and so many different issues, it does get tough to really follow the money. But as long as the “opposition” will paint with a big brush, I thought mine was a reasonable response.

      • Well, the MPAA represents the top 6 motion picture companies… including Disney. (also Sony, Warner Bros., Universal, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount)
        http://www.mpaa.org/faq

        I seriously doubt that the next 4 in line for the ‘biggest’ “Hollywood” companies contribute anywhere near the [2.2m] amount the big 6 do to lobbying… if they even have lobbyists at all…

        And given that Go0gle (alone) is known to use “outside” advocating groups (ie, they either pay for or ‘donate’ and/or make up ‘interest groups’ to lobby on their behalf. This is so it sounds like they are several groups that agree with them on everything.. and if one doesn’t dig into their financing, they usually get away with it) i would hazard a guess that their lobbying dollar expenditures are severely under-reported…

      • Actually, the accurate thing to say here is that the majority of motion picture producing entities — this includes suppliers of component assets like effects and all the indie production companies — don’t spend any lobbying dollars at all. To the extent that their interests are aligned with the major studios, the MPAA becomes their de facto lobbyist, whether they realize it or not.

        Sam is right that astroturfing exists all over the place, although, even that can be hard to define sometimes. As much as I blast the EFF, I’m sure the majority of people who work for that organization believe in what they’re doing. I sometimes work with Copyright Alliance, and I know they believe in what they’re doing. At what point does an advocacy organization become an astroturf organization? Probably somewhere around the point at which we disagree with its agenda. So, to me the only criteria for judgment should be about the principles being fostered, and the arguments being made; and among the things I distrust about messaging coming from the EFF, et al, is the consistent lack of nuance in their statements. Lobbying is of course about making a case to lawmakers, and PR (which includes astroturfing) is about making a case to the general public. Silicon Valley outspends Hollywood & the recording industry on both lobbying and PR, plus they happen to be the architects of the media used to disseminate their messages.

      • “And given that Go0gle (alone) is known to use “outside” advocating groups (ie, they either pay for or ‘donate’ and/or make up ‘interest groups’ to lobby on their behalf.”

        Hardly alone; astroturfing might not be particularly ethical but it’s not rare. CreativeAmerica, for example, is an astroturfed group. Google probably use the tactic more than most though.

  • We can’t beat tech with money. We’re even at a serious disadvantage with channels of communication. Tech has mastered the art of doublespeak, example IRFA, Internet Radio Fairness Act.

    But we do have numbers. We have 100s of 1,000s of creators. Filmmakers, Actors, Musicians, Songwriters, Authors, Interviewers, Journalists, Photograpers….. They have numbers 100s of 1,000s of programmers. Even the words kind of creepy, programmers.

    So, who are people going to believe or better yet, care about? Unless it’s their mother.

    We can beat tech with heart. Speak up for artists, even if you’re not one. http://irespectmusic.org/

  • Programmers can be creatives.

    • “can” is the prejorative word.

      • Well, yeah, but video game programmers undoubtedly are, even if the quality of the work varies as much as any artform. Papers Please was one of the best pieces of work of 2013. Across any artform.

      • Sam,

        Ironically what is takes for a programmer to be a “creative” to develop something that accomplishes nothing useful. Coincidence?

        I’m a video game fan too, you know. But I can step back and realize that the net worth of the gaming industry is largely negative. In the case of especially addictive games (like World of Warcraft) I’ve seen lives lots ruined and potential lost.

        Why should such “art” be encouraged, Sam?

      • M, people are free to make their own choices… If they are making poor choices (for instance, spending 20hours a day playing video-games) whose fault is that?

      • No, people are NOT free to make their own choices when addiction is involved. Addiction by definition implies in psychological or even physiological (although probably not for games, but too much gaming does tend to produce physiological changes) manipulation that perverts free will.

      • And personally I do believe there is a type of subversion of natural goal orientation that occurs in video games. People are wired to be goal seeking, but video games subvert this towards artificial goals of no practical value [In most cases. Obviously some games may some kind of provide a benefit (“serious games”), some are more addictive/etc as well, I would say MMORPG are extremely effective at this subversion, and can keep going forever because they have no “game over”. World of Warcraft is a MMORPG.]

        Of course video games is where this phenomena seems to be most visible, because the video game “experience” often is time consuming. But other forms of art cause it as well. There is a lot of societal drawbacks to a too healthy art community, especially when this art community uses psychological manipulation to effect harmful behaviors such as sexual promiscuity, drug use, or general states of irresponsibility and apathy as as not that uncommon in popular music and TV. Unfortunately, free speech, which exists primarily to protect political speech, is being abused to create this profound societal degradation by the so called “content industry”.

      • @ M

        Your arguments are now indistinguishable from Jack Chick. That’s a bad thing.

      • Sam,

        Interesting. Well I’m irreligious, so I’m not going to use God’s wrath to justify why you shouldn’t fuck everything that walks. I think increased risk of catching one of the various STDs is good enough reason. I don’t think God’s wrath is needed as a justification why you shouldn’t watch Honey Boo Boo either. I think the show’s stimulation of the asinine stands out on its own.

        I don’t think some book allegedly written by some zombie god is needed as a justification that culture should encourage betterment of the world. Why do you think culture should do, Sam?

        I don’t see how Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber on the various reality shows and other expensive bullshit that is being produced on a daily basis as easily consumable pop culture furthers that. I would say these “memes” that are backed by millions of dollars encourage behavior that is actually harmful, either that it distracts people from more worthwhile pursuits at best, or at worst induces the development of illiterate STD-infected methheads. But maybe there is some evidence out there that idolizing the Kardashians inspired some people to be rocket scientists. YMMV.

  • An industry’s influence on the legislature involves a lot more than the annual lobbying expenditures of a few trade associations. MPAA has spent about fifty years cultivating relationships with Congress – an advantage money can’t buy. Free screenings at the theater in MPAA’s offices, overlooking the White House, and the chance to hobnob with movie stars are more powerful motivators than the attention of lobbyists (which is what those annual spending numbers represent). Also, for a legislator, pushing the bills that Hollywood wants leads to a lot of vital campaign donations from wealthy individuals in the entertainment industry. It’s not an outright quid pro quo (that would be illegal). It’s just a cozy long-term relationship. And it’s more than the MPAA: legislators hear the same copyright maximalist messages from broadcasters, who need the friendship and cooperation of major copyright holders and who have the power to make or break political candidates by doling out airtime for political ads. The Internet is certainly a force in electoral politics now, but not as much as TV.

    Lobbying spend isn’t the best evidence of actual influence. It’s more accurate to look at, for example, the sources of campaign donations received by members of the judiciary committees (they have jurisdiction over copyright). Look at how two Congressmen on the House Judiciary committee read from the exact same MPAA-prepared script during one of last year’s copyright hearings. Look at how strong the support for SOPA/PIPA were among members of Congress right up to the point they started hearing from their constituents. And look at the 15 or so expansions of copyright that Congress has enacted in the past 30 years. All of that is influence that 2013 lobbying dollars can’t buy.

    Certainly Internet companies including Google could eventually develop these kinds of influence. I’m sure they’re working hard on it. But the media oligopolies have about a century’s head start.

    • I think Silicon Valley’s billionaires are holding their own when it comes to general hobnobbing and showing people a good time. A now-dead studio exec’s former relationship with a now-dead senator has very little to do with anyone schmoozing today, so the century’s head start is of questionable value. Lobbying alone is clearly not the only measurement; I don’t even have a problem with lobbying per se. But this portrayal that the MPAA rules the roost while tech industry folks can’t get in the door is just silly. Even sillier is the portrayal that all tech industry interests are inherently the people’s interests.

    • Yeah you hit the nail on the head Mitch. The media oligopolies are in the business of influence. It’s what they do. Literally. For a living. So naturally, they’re is this great cooperation between them and the political system.

      • Media oligopolies are in the business of making entertainment for sale. I certainly hope you never watch TV, listen to music, or go to the movies.

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