The Wicked and Dissembling Glass

Photo by Yaroslav Gerzhedovich

Last week, MPAA CEO Christopher Dodd spoke in San Francisco about fostering better collaboration between the entertainment and Internet industries.  Not surprisingly, two voices from the tech industry, TechDirt and the Electronic Frontier Foundation rang out with rebuttal. Mike Masnick, editor of TechDirt, called Dodd a “predictable dissembler” and proceeded to attack him personally for “lacking the vision” for his role.  The EFF posted this article, which strikes a more conciliatory tone that only makes for an even more insidious version of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black.

Now, I don’t have any strong feelings about the MPAA or Mr. Dodd per se.  I agree with some functions of that body, disagree with others, and am generally neutral on most of its activities.  In January, I wrote that I considered the protest against SOPA to be generally dysfunctional and that well-meaning people were being used as puppets by the Web industry, playing on a historic distrust of the media industry.  So, let’s clear one thing up right now:  as of this moment, the Web industry outspends entertainment on straight-up lobbying and on general PR, including the work of the EFF.  As an aside, I feel a little silly using the term Web industry when one company, Google, owns more than 90% of search and advertising worldwide.  Is there a U.S. company more monopolistic at this point in history?

Still, the Web folks continue to get away with portraying themselves as the underdog and also as the champions of free speech. Thus, the EFF article states, innocent of the slightest hypocrisy, “But let’s not forget that he [Dodd] serves as the chairman and CEO of one of the most influential lobbying groups in Washington, and that the actions of the industry have yet to back up his rhetoric.”  The writers of the article aim to sound open-minded while warning the reader not to trust “Dodd’s influence” despite the fact that the EFF’s Northern California friends enjoy far more influence, if lobbying dollars are the true measure.  Let’s also not forget that the Web industry has left more than its fair share of unfulfilled rhetoric on the table.

While Web-centric pundits continue to raise the specter of SOPA’s return as an emotional tug on our senses, we should remember some of the odd dissembling that came from the bill’s opponents on January 18.  Remember these slogans?  Good intention, bad law.  End Piracy, Not Liberty.  These reasonable-sounding mantras were designed for general consumption by a public that doesn’t follow these issues on a regular basis; and they imply that the Web industry agrees that online piracy is a problem but that SOPA and PIPA were not the solution.  The question remains, though, what solutions has the Web industry offered since declaring victory in the name of liberty over these bills?

So far, this industry has continued to pump out fears regarding any legislative action designed to protect copyright; it has increased its lobbying efforts and expenditures;  it has perpetuated the implication that copyright itself is anathema to free speech; and it has continued to insist that the solution to piracy is to embrace it as a business opportunity rather than to confront it as a threat.  These are not the actions of an industry looking to collaborate to solve a problem. Perhaps because it’s not their problem.

Both the EFF and TechDirt articles in response to Dodd cite a Congressional Research Service Report (see embed) that they claim makes Dodd out as a liar with regard to the importance of filmed entertainment as a component of GDP as well as the industry’s role as an employer.  But, as is often the case with data, truth is in the voice of the interpreter; and it looks to me as though TechDirt and EFF are reading what they want to see in the numbers.

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First, the entire report is based on best available information only from the major studios listed on Page 1.  Hence, the employment number is meaningless, because anyone who knows the motion picture business, knows that the lion’s share of work is done by people who never receive a paycheck from these companies.  The report does not reflect, for instance, the independent production companies who produce most of the filmed entertainment in the U.S.  A quick glance at a web page for just one company, Participant, lists 50 projects completed or in production. If we average a conservative but realistic 150 roles per project (not including actors or directors), that’s 7,500 contract jobs ranging from entry-level to high-paying through one production company since 2004.

The report also would not include a four-person, middle-income shop in NYC doing motion graphics this year for a TV network. These people most certainly are employed by the entertainment industry, and so are several hundred shops just like them around the country. Then of course, there are tens of thousands of industry professionals who support themselves, their families, and their communities by working variously on TV shows, documentaries, low-budget features, commercials, and industrials, all of which are affected by the overall health of the motion picture industry, even at the top rungs of the ladder.

In the TechDirt article, Mike Masnick uses the CRS report to simultaneously assert that the movie business is doing just fine (i.e. studio executive salaries) and, by the way, it isn’t really all that important to the economy (i.e. small contribution to GDP).  Studio CEO salaries, right or wrong, have very little to do with the overall health of the American film industry, especially in a discussion about the effect of online piracy on filmmakers of every size.

As for the significance of filmed entertainment to the economy, again, the GDP part of the report is narrowly focused on box office sales in the U.S. and Canada for the major studios listed.  This leaves out huge segments of economic value in the for-profit, industry as a whole.   (It should be noted that this not a flaw in the report itself, only in how the limited data is being used in this context.)

Strangely enough, Masnick sees no irony in the fact that he says, on the one hand, that the film business doesn’t amount to much economically and yet somehow, Hollywood manages to wield tremendous lobbying power.  In fact, were we to take this report as the only relevant data, it shows clearly that Disney, News Corp, Viacom, Sony, and Time Warner combined don’t make as much as Google all by itself.  So, ask yourself who’s likely throwing whose weight around in Washington?

SOPA and PIPA may well be dead, even in revised forms; but currently on life support, I believe, is the Web industry’s ability to keep playing David to media’s Goliath, all  the while crying, “freedom” in order to effect policy in its favor.  It won’t take too much longer for the general public to figure out that the members of the newly announced Internet Association are no more deserving of our blind trust than any other wealthy, vested interest. This is just business and politics as usual; and I would ask what wicked and dissembling glass makes the the wizards of Silicon Valley believe they’re always the good guys?

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