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Congress Puts Power Behind Hollywood's Goals

October 23, 1998|CLAUDIA ELLER and JAMES BATES

This marks Hollywood's biggest week in Washington in years, thanks to a stew of measures that could mean billions of dollars to the entertainment industry.

Legislation expected to be signed soon by President Clinton means Mickey Mouse remains out of the clutches of the public domain until 2023, the result of an extension of copyright protections giving studios such as Walt Disney Co. an extra 20 years to profit from movies and characters before they are up for grabs.

Hollywood is also a bit more at ease with the Internet because another measure allows the Feds to crack down forcefully on anyone who tries to illegally snatch movies, TV shows, books or music once the inevitable day comes when studios use cyberspace as another form of distribution.

Even directors, writers and actors got something: federal protection against sleazy companies that renege on paying residuals when they peddle their movies.

And as part of the horse trading that went on behind the scenes, studios are also offering to pay residuals on all films released before 1960, although the Hollywood talent guilds are barking that they want old TV shows to be covered as well.

Now comes the hard part--making this hodgepodge of measures stick.

At the heart of it are international copyright agreements adopted nearly two years ago in Geneva by representatives of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which is charged with bolstering global copyright protection.

It was up to Congress to bring U.S. laws into line with the treaties. That's why it passed stronger laws protecting movies, music and writings when they are transmitted online and enacted provisions protecting Internet service providers such as America Online from liability when their systems are used by copyright violators.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act is designed in part to give Hollywood a club to crack down on, say, the hacker in South Dakota who in the future may try to pirate "Rush Hour 5" when it gets downloaded over the Web.

Clearly, one of Hollywood's biggest qualms about the Internet is that once it launches something electronically, anything can happen. Witness how bent out of shape Universal Pictures got when a trailer for "Psycho" that it released exclusively online first ended up on a TV show.

Hollywood is already frustrated with Internet gnats like Harry Knowles and Matt Drudge, who regularly tweak gigantic studios' noses by publishing state secrets such as the cool response test audiences gave to "Batman Forever."

Legislation Is No Panacea

So who's to say that Hollywood's success at stopping electronic pirates will be any greater than it has been against video pirates? In December, one could walk into plenty of Asian video stores and buy "Titanic" just as it was hitting U.S. theaters.

However, Jack Valenti, chief of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, says that over the last 10 to 12 years, the industry group has put a sizable dent in piracy by applying constant pressure on the Feds and distributors around the world to crack down.

"We spend $50 million to $60 million a year on anti-thievery measures, including legal fees," Valenti said.

Still, piracy of all intellectual property, including software and musical works, robs the industry of an estimated $18 billion to $20 billion worldwide each year. Movies and videos account for more than $3 billion, and with music, the problem amounts to about $5 billion.

"We're never going to wipe out piracy any more than we can wipe out crime," Valenti said. "But we've made significant progress." He estimates that 10% of products sold are pirated.

The WIPO measure is most significant for the U.S. because it is the largest supplier of copyrighted works and its films are in great demand all over the globe.

That raises another question: How enthusiastically will the rest of the world embrace something that largely benefits Hollywood? Valenti hopes to convince other countries that their own film industries are just as vulnerable to piracy.

It's up to each individual country to police piracy. The MPAA, which has ties to more than 20 anti-piracy federations around the world, makes it its business to help with the implementation of these protections around the world.

When it comes to distributing over the Internet, copyright owners themselves must protect their wares against electronic thieves. In recent years, as the Internet has blossomed into a medium to buy books, music and other information and entertainment products, copyright holders have become increasingly fearful of hackers and thieves.

Entertainment companies now believe they can breathe a little easier about putting their movies, music and other creations on the Web, which is still years away from becoming a mass medium.

New Measures Increase Confidence

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