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Posse forms to hold back tide of piracy

Big-name creators of entertainment and other copyrighted products kick off a lobbying alliance.

October 12, 2007|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Even the mighty seek strength in numbers.

Under the crystal chandeliers of one of Capitol Hill's most ornate caucus rooms, the makers of movies, music, TV shows, computer software and other copyrighted products joined Thursday to show off their stuff -- and argue that people shouldn't be allowed to steal it.

It was the first major event for the Copyright Alliance, a new organization formed by deep-pocketed content producers from Hollywood, Silicon Valley and other regions. The Washington-based group intends to make a unified case to Congress that its members' industries are a vital component of the U.S. economy and need to be protected from piracy.

Together, they make a powerful lobbying group.

The association lured congressional staffers with free gourmet sandwiches and DVD-size cookies to a room filled with big-screen TVs, laptops and glossy brochures. Capitol Hill aides took turns playing video games such as "Madden NFL 08" and "Super Mario Bros." at one booth. At another, they lined up for autographs from soul singer Isaac Hayes.

And in a demonstration of the clout behind the Copyright Alliance, the group lured powerful House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to speak at its coming-out party. "When you walk into this room," Conyers told the crowd, "copyright becomes real."

Several of the companies and organizations involved in the group -- including Walt Disney Co., Microsoft Corp. and the Recording Industry Assn. of America -- already are well versed in the art of Washington lobbying.

But their alliance reflects a collective concern that the piracy threat continues to grow. What's more, content creators fear they have been losing the public opinion battle over use of copyrighted material as consumer electronics makers and digital rights groups that advocate fewer restrictions turn consumers against them.

"The stakes that the United States has in protecting its extraordinarily valuable assets of innovation and invention and creativity frequently just don't have a sufficient voice in policy discussions," said Richard Cotton, executive vice president and general counsel for NBC Universal, which helped form the alliance.

Many of the participants have been working together informally since 2000, when an ad hoc coalition called the Copyright Assembly was launched by Jack Valenti, the former president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Its mission was to educate Congress and the public about the economic importance of copyrighted material to make the case for stronger protections.

But as technology has made it easier to download and share TV shows and full-length movies, some in the industry thought they needed a more formal effort.

"The issues are very, very big, and I think it needed the power of all the copyright industries in order to collectively impact Capital Hill, the federal government and the intellectual establishment," said current MPAA President Dan Glickman, who helped push for the new group.

It launched in May with its own staff and a website that includes studies about the economic effect of piracy and an interactive map showing the presence of copyright-related industries in all 50 states.

It also didn't hurt that the Consumer Electronics Assn. and several digital rights organizations last year launched their own effort -- called Digital Freedom -- to organize grass-roots opposition to restrictive copyright protections.

The group is urging legislation allowing more "fair use" of copyrighted materials for noncommercial purposes and opposes attempts to mandate additional technological restrictions on digital content.

"They've done a better job of getting their version of the truth out to consumers, and because of that there was this tidal wave of support for free use," said David P. Trust, head of Professional Photographers of America. "We felt we needed to do a better job."

Gigi B. Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a public interest group that is part of Digital Freedom, said she was puzzled by the approach.

"Rather than figure out how to change their business models in ways that appeal to their customers, they're starting another Washington inside-the-Beltway advocacy group," she said. "I'm not sure it's the best expenditure of money."

Still, Sohn acknowledged that the Copyright Alliance membership was daunting. It includes large entertainment companies -- such as News Corp., Time Warner Inc. and Viacom Inc. -- plus the major professional sports leagues and associations representing publishers, musicians and other artists.

Although the goal is to educate lawmakers, executive director Patrick Ross did not rule out lobbying for or against specific legislation if its 42 members were unified. An example is a bill Conyers is preparing that would streamline U.S. copyright enforcement, which now is spread over several federal agencies.

"Opponents of copyright are certainly getting more organized in their efforts and in developing their talking points. Hopefully, our organization can serve as a counter to that," he said. "It feels good to have friends who are fighting the same fight."

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jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

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