As part of the 6th Annual Roger Ebert Overlooked Film Festival, Jack Valenti (Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America) gave a speech and took questions today at University of Illinois, where I attend school. Jack’s speech was part of his “Moral Imperative” speaking tour, and contained many of the elements of a speech at Duke University earlier this year.
Well over half the session was spent in an informal Q&A session which I was fortunate enough to participate in. I’ve recorded the gist of the conversation as best I can remember it.
I began by asking what fair use rights should end consumers have concerning creative content that they have legally and legitimately acquired? How does the MPAA plan to restrict piracy without violating these rights, recognized by the constitution and the courts? Or does the MPAA believe these fair use rights fundamentally conflict with the rights of creators?”
Mr Valenti answered my question quickly by defining fair use as educational use. He stated that fair use is not a right because it is not in the Constitution - it is in the Copyright Act of 1976, where it is not defined. (ignorming that the courts have defined a specific set of guidelines for determining fair use). He then shifted the topic back to ill-gotten materials and talked for a good deal of time about the dangers of piracy.
I asked if I could rephrase what I heard him say, to see if I understood. He agreed, so I asked if he meant that the digital world cannot support the forms of fair use that have been recognized as legal in the analog world. As an example, I put forth the VCR, noting that he had once said that the VCR would destroy the film industry but it has now become another revenue stream for the industry.
He responded by discussing the scenario of making backup copies. He said that DVDs last forever and that giving the ability to make one copy means giving the ability to make one hundred copies. He challenged me to produce a definition of fair use given by the courts. He also mentioned that the RIAA and MPAA have won all the cases against filesharing companies (which “profit heavily off of pornography and stealing”) except for the Grokster case, which he discussed for a bit. Then he defended his statement about the VCR, noting that the industry estimates analog piracy is quite costly to them.
Somewhere in there we also discussed Sony v. Universal Studios which characterized the recording of broadcasting for timeshifting purposes as fair use.
At some point in the above back and forth, Roger Ebert started to interrupt and the crowd got restless; so although Jack still seemed very engaged in our discussion, I bailed and sat down, swallowing a billion more follow-up questions.
My summary: Jack Valenti is a very charming and witty man who genuinely loves movies. He is very good at steering the conversation toward what he wishes to talk about. However, he glossed over major facts, misrepresented both the wording and intent of copyright law and fair use, and makes almost no distinction between intellectual property and real property.
My initial question got an unsurprising answer: The MPAA doesn’t believe in fair use; they believe all uses of creative material should be subject to prior permission by the rights-owner. However, I was surprised at how unapologetically and unashamedly Jack was in denying the rights of his industry’s consumers.
Regrets: I wish I had found a way to keep the topic focused on what rights the consumer has concerning legally purchased material. I wish I hadn’t made the crack about the VCR - it sounded like a personal attack and lost me the crowd as well as derailing a productive conversation. I wish I had complemented Mr. Valenti at the onset and thanked him at the end. I wish I had prefaced my initial question with a disclaimer stating that I believe artists and investors deserve to profit from their work and risk and that most copying done by consumers is probably morally indefensible.
Overall, it was an education and nerve-racking experience. I am honestly dismayed that although the large majority of the audience was 40 and up, the only people who congratulated me (there were 6 or 7) were from my peer group. Is there really such a generation gap on this issue?