MPAA Boss ‘Forgets’ Hollywood’s Pirate History

Opinion

It's no secret that the entertainment industry can be rather one-sided in their views when it comes to piracy and copyright. This week, however, MPAA chairman Chris Dodd took this spin to the extreme. In a speech he referenced Hollywood's history to argue how important copyright protection is. But, he forgot to mention that the US movie industry was actually built by rogue filmmakers, 'thieves' and 'pirates'.

Spearheaded by the MPAA, Hollywood’s major movie studios continuously emphasize how copyright infringement costs them billions of dollars every year.

Pirates are ruining the industry and are the direct reason for the loss of thousands of jobs, they say. Better copyright protections are the solution, they conclude.

A recent example of this reasoning was displayed by MPAA boss Chris Dodd earlier this week at the CinemaCon meeting in Las Vegas. Dodd told the audience that copyright protection has always been vital to the US movie industry, and it’s copyright that has allowed Hollywood to thrive .

The MPAA used this to emphasize that the movie industry and the tech sector have a mutual interest in strong copyright legislation. Or put in his words:

The truth is that neither the content nor the technology industries could survive without strong protections for intellectual property.

Many of you are familiar with how the name Hollywood became synonymous with the birth of the American film industry. It was in Jacob Stern’s horse barn, at the corner of Hollywood and Vine, the story goes, that Cecil B. DeMille screened the first full length feature film 100 years ago.

Well, when it comes to the tech sector, replace “Jacob Stern’s horse barn” with “Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room” at Harvard, and you have almost the same story with the birth of Facebook.

In these and countless other examples throughout our history, the ability to give birth to an idea and convert it into economic success, whether it is the content of a film or the technology of the internet, depends on copyright and patent protection

An interesting argument, but also an unfortunate one. Not only because Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been accused of stealing the Facebook idea himself, which Hollywood turned into a movie recently. But also because it’s easy to argue that the American movie industry was built by copyright “thieves.”

In fact, Hollywood wouldn’t be what it is today if a bunch of rogue filmmakers hadn’t fled New York early last century. This “pirate” version of the movie industry history starts with one of America’s greatest innovators, Thomas Edison.

Little over a century ago Edison stood at the cradle of the filmmaking industry. He was the first to invent a device through which people could project film and obtained many movie related patents. To make money from his hard work he asked a licensing fee from those who were making movies with his technology.

This licensing requirement motivated a group of rogue filmmaking pirates to flee New York, including a man named William. They left for the then still wild West, where they recorded many films without a license until Edison’s patents expired. These pirates continue to do business there today in a place they named Hollywood. William’s last name? Fox.

So Edison got no money from these Hollywood pirates. While today’s Hollywood would be up in arms about this gross circumvention of intellectual property rights, we should mention that Edison himself wasn’t squeaky clean either.

In fact, in 1902 Thomas Edison himself copied “A Trip to the Moon,” a movie from Georges Méliès, without permission to show it in US theaters. This overt act of piracy eventually resulted in the bankruptcy of the French filmmaker.

The above shows that it’s not a stretch to argue that the movie industry was built by pirates. Or to put it in other words, if early 1900 filmmakers would have paid for their licenses, Hollywood would probably have never been built.

But you won’t hear that from the MPAA of course…

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