Interview: The man who wants to stop Kazaa

If you think copying a DVD movie and downloading The Matrix from Kazaa is okay, Jack Valenti wants a word with you.

The 81-year-old president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America is on a mission. Heading MPAA since 1966, his goal in recent years has been to change people's attitudes and stop piracy of Hollywood content.

Valenti is considered one of Washington's top lobbyists on behalf of Hollywood's seven major motion picture studios. During his tenure, Valenti has helped pioneer ratings systems for both film and television, and has fought government censorship.

Valenti has also taken heat for his uncompromising positions, and support for laws forcing consumer electronics vendors to implement antipiracy technology. Critics contend such provisions would hamper consumers who use the devices for legitimate purposes.

PC World invited Valenti to weigh in on a variety of hot topics, from Kazaa to DVD copy protection and buying movies online. An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

PC World: What are the MPAA's biggest challenges?

Valenti: I'm looking at how to protect valuable creative works in a new world called the digital world that is totally different from the analog world.

Next, we want to offer consumers thousands of titles of movies through their computer or television and pipe it to them over a network, using WiFi--or however. Consumers don't have that possibility now, but we are trying.

PCW: When did copyright protection first get on your radar screen?

Valenti: The copyright issues bubbled up first when the VCR came out. Now there have been a lot of canards about that. At the time we felt we ought to try to put a small levy on blank cassettes and then that would be put into an approved government agency and redistributed to copyright owners in this country.

We felt the best way to get a copyright royalty fee put on blank videocassette tapes was to have the courts declare that VCR machines were copyright infringing. Then you go to the Congress (to impose the levy). Unhappily, by a five to four decision, the Supreme Court said no.

PCW: Why can't people who legally purchase DVDs make one backup copy? How come the same fair use rights that let you make a backup copy of other media do not extend to DVDs?

Valenti: That question has nothing to do with fair use because a DVD is encrypted and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act says to circumvent an encryption violates that law.

Keep in mind how the DVD came into effect. The DVD was a result of voluntary agreements by the hardware people and by the copyright people. And everybody decided they were going to make machines that only took encrypted DVDs and then they would be decrypted in the machine--all done. And guess what? It's proven to be a bonanza for the DVD machine manufacturers and for the copyright owners. That was done the right way.

Do you know anything else in the country that if something is abused for any reason they'll give you a backup? If I go down to the hardware store and buy an electric lawn mower and I take it home, and three weeks later my wife runs over it in the driveway, I can't take it back and get a new one. I can't get a back-up.

PCW: Well, when you buy a software program, aren't you buying the license to use it? You are entitled to make a backup copy.

Valenti: I don't want to deal with software because that's not my field.

If you're allowed to make up one backup copy of a DVD all of a sudden somebody makes two and gives one to a friend. And next thing you know file-swappers are trading that film online. When I went on Kazaa just last Monday, there were 4,280,000 people in Kazaa at the same time I was.

PCW: What is Jack Valenti doing on Kazaa?

Valenti: I go on Kazaa every week just to see what's happening. And by the way, they were swapping 850 million files. And a lot of it was pornography, some of it was music, but a lot of it was films.

PCW: You have suggested in some of your comments that the computer industry is profiting off Hollywood by selling computers that rip, burn, and copy digital content. Are you suggesting the movie studios' profits are more important than the computer industry's profits?

Valenti: I'm not suggesting anything. I'm only saying that there is a huge avalanche of thievery today. Researchers estimate that 400,000 to 600,000 movies are being illegally uploaded and downloaded everyday.

People will say, "Well, you Hollywood guys are always whining. Why don't you change your business model?"

Well, my answer to that is: There is no business model ever struck off by the hand and grain of man that can compete with free. It can't be done.

If I have a Pizza Hut and I'm selling pizzas [at a certain price], somebody puts up a Pizza Hut next to me and gives them away, who do you think is going to get the business?

PCW: So who's to blame for piracy; is it the computer industry, large organizations like a university, or individuals?

Valenti: I'm not blaming anybody. I'm only observing and asserting what is real today. Right now we are holding meetings to try to see if the (information technology) and (consumer electronics) industries and the MPAA can work together so everybody is playing by the same rules of the game.

So far, we haven't been able to find that common ground, but we're still looking.

PCW: Now, you've heard about how the Recording Industry Association of America has forced Verizon to hand over the names of customers who were swapping copyright-protected content. Does the MPAA plan to target individuals as the RIAA has?

Valenti: I have no plans to do that now, however, I must say; we're not exiling any options. At this time, we have no plans to do that.

PCW: Does the MPAA plan to follow the RIAA's lead in financing the development and testing of software programs that would sabotage the computers and Internet connections of people who download pirated music?

Valenti: We're not involved in anything that sabotages anybody. We're working with some of the best brains in the high-tech industry to do everything that we can legally to protect ourselves.

We're not going to do anything that's illegal, that's for damn sure.

PCW: What is the game plan right now for fighting piracy of Hollywood content?

Valenti: First, we can assert our rights just like any citizen can to protect what is ours. If somebody steals your car, you have got a right to protect yourself.

Number two, we hope that we can buy an association with the best brains in the high-tech business to find some technological protective clothing. We hope that will come about. And that's probably the best way to do it. I don't know that you can ever get rid of piracy entirely but you can make it so difficult through technological means it's not worth stealing. All these things would be done legally, all legitimate, all within the boundaries of the law.

And third, we're still meeting with the (tech) and the (consumer electronics) people and perhaps together we could come to some agreeable conclusions that we'll all agree is the best way to deal with this.

We are testing new kinds of protective devices and technology like encryption, and (digital rights management) tools from RealNetworks and Microsoft. If both or one of those is workable, and if customers want to use either, we'll try it right now.

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