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Hollywood regroups after losing battle over anti-piracy bills

After a full-on counterattack by the tech industry, the entertainment industry must conduct PR damage control and convince tech-savvy Americans that it isn't the bad guy.

January 21, 2012|By Richard Verrier, Los Angeles Times
  • Protestors hold signs at a New York rally against proposed laws to curb Internet piracy.
Protestors hold signs at a New York rally against proposed laws to curb Internet… (STAN HONDA, AFPGetty Images )

After a week in which their anti-piracy legislation got derailed by the full force of the Internet lobby, the mood in Hollywood was one of anger, frustration and a growing resignation that the entertainment industry will be forced to accept a much weaker law than originally envisioned.

A full-on counterattack by a tech industry opposed to the toughest elements in the congressional bills, including a well-publicized Wednesday shutdown by key Internet sites, halted the legislation.

With supporters defecting, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Friday postponed a key procedural vote. The lead sponsor of the companion bill in the House said he would redraft the proposed law in search of consensus.

The developments were a setback for former Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, who has made fighting online piracy his No. 1 priority since becoming head of the Motion Picture Assn. of America last March. The Connecticut Democrat was selected in part for his political savvy and 30-year experience in Congress.

Dodd said Friday that the industry would now seek a compromise version of the legislation. He acknowledged that Hollywood lost the public relations battle and blamed his Silicon Valley counterparts.

"You've got an opponent who has the capacity to reach millions of people with a click of a mouse and there's no fact-checker. They can say whatever they want," he said. "We need to engage in a far better education process. People need to know … that 98% of people who work in the entertainment industry make $55,000 a year. They're not moguls and they're not walking red carpets."

That message, however, has so far failed to resonate with the American public, which has shown more sympathy for the tech companies promoting the idea that the bills — the Protect Intellectual Property Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act — would hurt legitimate websites and stifle freedom of speech on the Web.

Hollywood now must conduct PR damage control and convince tech-savvy Americans that it isn't the bad guy.

"What they need to do is lick their wounds, see what happened and do a lot of test messaging right now because clearly the one they were using wasn't effective," said veteran Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com, a reputation management company.

Rob Beschizza, managing editor of the digital culture website BoingBoing.net, which joined the Internet "blackout," said many people were suspicious of the entertainment industry's inside-the-Beltway lobbying effort.

"While folks feel a lot of sympathy for artists and musicians who are struggling to make sales, there's none for the companies," Beschizza said.

Executives from Hollywood's six major studios all declined to comment Friday on the turn of events. But many in the creative community were seething about how they lost the public debate over bills that they say are desperately need to crack down on foreign websites that distribute bootleg movies and TV shows, which they say costs the industry billions of dollars annually.

"We fought for this legislation because illegal Internet businesses that locate offshore expressly to elude U.S. laws should not escape the very same rules of law that currently apply to illegal U.S. websites," said a statement from various unions, including the Directors Guild of America, the Screen Actors Guild and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

Actor Malcolm McDowell, who stars in and helped produce "Suing the Devil," a low-budget indie film that has been heavily pirated on the Web, expressed frustration at opposition to tougher anti-piracy laws.

"Frankly, the problem is epidemic," McDowell said, adding that his movie has been downloaded nearly 100,000 times on more than 50 illegal sites.

Television producer Shawn Ryan, whose credits include the groundbreaking FX police drama "The Shield," took to Twitter to make his case for the need for tough legislation to fight piracy.

"I want a free Internet," Ryan tweeted Wednesday, "but if you like good TV there will be much less of it in future if piracy continues."

Although Hollywood's options appear to be limited, one tactic could be to apply more pressure on the White House to help broker a compromise with the tech industry. The Obama administration angered many studio executives last Saturday by releasing a statement that criticized aspects of SOPA and PIPA even after sponsors of the bills agreed to remove the most controversial provision, which would have enabled Internet service providers to block access to foreign websites engaged in piracy.

Two senior entertainment executives and Obama donors, who declined to speak on the record, said they were so angry about his administration's handling of the matter that they would not support the president's reelection bid.

Technology companies and other opponents of the bills said they wanted a slower, more deliberative process that could delay a new law until at least next year. They prefer legislation pushed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), which would use trade laws to try to cut off the money from the U.S. to foreign piracy sites.

But the entertainment industry and its supporters said that approach is too narrow and bureaucratic, noting that trade disputes can take 12 to18 months to resolve.

richard.verrier@latimes.com

Times staff writers Jim Puzzanghera, Ben Fritz and Joe Flint contributed to this report.

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