Editorial: Stop OnlineShoplifters

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We are not in the business of playing matchmaker, but we think it would be in the best interests of everybody if the studios and Web companies that have been locked in mortal combat over anti-piracy legislation got together to talk about the issue directly, rather than through the press and Hill hearings, where the rhetorical volume knob has reached Spinal Tap's famous 11 on a scale of 1 to 10.

Those who supported the antipiracy bills were not Internet Killers out to close down the Internet for their own selfish gains. Their goal, in fact, was to stem losses. Yes, there is some credence to the point that Hollywood tends to guard its distribution pipeline assiduously. The Internet can hardly be overprotected from pirates, but a blunderbuss can do collateral damage that may be hard to anticipate.

Those opposing the bills are not simply out to protect ill-gotten gains and the freedom to steal content under the shield of fair use or the guise of simply showing the Internet, warts and all. That said, studios can hardly be faulted for worrying that some might have a vested interest in ad and search ranking dollars, wherever they come from. There are smaller players on both sides, edge Web companies that could be hurt by legislative overreach in the name of protecting copyrights, and union workers whose jobs could be at risk if the new video distribution model becomes “rip it and flip it.”

But the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Pirates are out there stealing and peer-to-peer sharing and curating video programming that takes money out of the pockets not only of Hollywood moguls but gaffers and grips and other regular folks. And many kids have yet to get the message that downloading illegal digital content is the same as stealing hard goods. Perhaps one problem is calling it 'piracy,’ which evokes Jack Sparrow and an alluring image of an endearingly cavalier disregard for authority. It’s time to retire the pirate image and replace it with that of the purse-snatcher or shoplifter, the petty and notso- petty criminals it is harder to identify with.

Some opponents of SOPA and PIPA say it is not clear how big a problem online theft is, or that it may involve only a couple of handfuls of Websites, but that is not persuasive, particularly when the Justice Department has just charged one site, megaupload.com, with massive piracy. The site boasted 50 million daily visitors accounting for a staggering 4% of all Internet traffic, according to the Justice Department. Justice and the FBI also say that theft of TV shows and movies took a halfbillion dollar hit on the content community over the past five years. That money has to come from somewhere, and it isn’t all coming out of the salaries of the studio chiefs.

There were clearly issues with SOPA and PIPA, including the definition of an infringing site and the difficulty of undoing the damage if an alleged infringer turned out not to be that. But if video is moving to the Web, as the FCC has suggested it is going to, protecting that content from theft will no longer be about shielding the new kid on the block from bullies but about keeping the block—as in the business model—from being blown up by foreign agents.

So, can we agree that piracy—oh, pardon us: online theft—is a problem? And can we agree that not only studios, but the Google TV’s and overthe- top players who are putting TV everywhere, have skin in the game? If Google wants to be a TV player beyond kittens on keyboards and exploding soda bottles—and clearly, it does—it will need to find a way to keep the criminals at bay as well.

That is why we were encouraged that in separate interviews with B&C and Multichannel News this week, both sides indicated a willingness to hold direct discussions about a path forward. That must include a shorter time frame for enforcement than the years it sometimes takes for the Justice Department to launch its attacks on piracy, but it must be a process that protects due process and fair use. It is a tall order, but a crucial one.

It’s time to issue a blanket amnesty for the rhetorical attacks, ratchet down the rhetoric going forward and save the ammunition for the real enemy: Content thieves.

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