AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands -- The biggest danger to Hollywood's intellectual property is not Internet video piracy nor the intractable problems of encryption and digital rights management (DRM), but Hollywood itself, according to a panel of experts convened here by the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) and chaired by Brad Hunt, chief technology officer of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
In a Pogoesque paraphrase of "We have met the enemy, and he is us," Johnathan Taplin, chairman and chief executive officer of Intertainer Inc., a Culver City, Calif.-based on-demand video service company, said: "Technology is not the problem. It's the content cartel!"
Taplin claimed that Hollywood operates a de facto monopoly on content that bottles up movies so tightly that piracy becomes the best - and often only -- way to distribute them digitally. "There is a content cartel used to running over networks that it controls," said Taplin, charging that the studios, "want to be able to control the food chain from beginning to end."
Piracy could be reduced to a nuisance, according to Brad Brunell, director, marketing and business development of Windows New Media Platforms Division at Microsoft Corp., if the studios increased the flow of "legitimate" on-line content from a trickle to a flood. "Yes, the Internet is a source of leakage. But there is no legitimate content source," said Brunell.
Panelist David Rondan, vice president of advanced technologies at MGM Studios, noted that piracy has not been a bigger on-line problem for movies - as it was for music - because movie files are 100 times bigger than most music files, with download times in excess of four hours. "We're lucky," he said.
"Why not just flood the peer-to-peer services with legitimate content?" asked Brunell "Instead of fighting it, why not just embrace it."
Taplin reinforced this idea by noting that by choking off legitimate on-line services, Hollywood's "content cartel" threatens business like his that have a good record of security.
"Over IP [network], we have about 60 movies," said Taplin. "An on-line movie service needs to look like a video store. It has to have hundreds of thousands of movies for people to choose from. Otherwise, we're dead."
Scott Sander, president and chief executive officer of SightSound Technologies said the content industry lags in digital on-line technology at its great peril. His company has been making movies that go directly into data files, without the analog phase of 35-mm film. "This isn't digital cinema; it's digital cinematography," he said. He emphasized that this way of making films is "cheaper, faster and more secure" than traditional methods and requires only more people who can learn how to do it. It is especially attractive to independent film-makers, who would be more willing to see their work made, edited and then distributed through IP networks.
Sander scoffed at Hollywood's anxieties over Internet piracy while DVDs - "digital venereal disease" -- remain the primary source of stolen content. Taplin chimed in by stating that Hollywood's current resistance to the release of its best work in high-quality digital form over IP, combined its demand for as much as 60 percent of revenue from all use of its content, is a formula for a "digital train wreck."
Only Sander ended up putting a positive spin on the contentious discussion, by suggesting that technologies like digital cinematography will eventual leapfrog Hollywood's efforts at encryption, proscription and watermarking. He bravely predicted the present time marks "the beginning of a more orderly phase of this industry, instead of all the craziness that's been going on for years."
David Benjamin is a free lance writer based in Paris.