Studio technician

MPAA president Jack Valenti has never downloaded an MP3, but he could have a huge impact on the future of online entertainment.

Published February 14, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Jack Valenti's sharp, drawled words sound familiar along the Beltway and in Hollywood studios, but until a few months ago, no one in Silicon Valley paid him much attention. Few saw what the 78-year-old head of the Motion Picture Association of America -- which lobbies for the film, television and video industries -- had to do with digital innovation or dot-com glory.

But that was before Valenti catalyzed a pair of high-profile lawsuits that threaten to curtail some of the freedoms that coders and Net entrepreneurs have been taking for granted. One case centers on, a Canadian site that promises free access to live TV programming -- mainly from U.S. television networks whose broadcasts it intercepts and streams online; the other case aims to prevent people from using DeCSS, a program that can unscramble encrypted digital video disks (DVD) on computers running Linux-based operating systems.

"The principle occupation [of the MPAA] is to make sure that American movies move freely and unhobbled around the world," says Valenti, defending the cases. "And in the last several years, we have been intentionally, seriously and energetically concerned with combating theft of our intellectual property."

Valenti is no stranger to conflict. In World War II, he flew 51 combat missions over Italy, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors. He also worked his way through college at the University of Houston, and after getting his MBA from Harvard, Valenti handled the television advertising for John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign. When President Kennedy was gunned down, Valenti was six cars behind him. A few hours later, while flying back to Washington on Air Force One, President Lyndon Johnson named Valenti his first special assistant.

A little over three years later, in 1966, Valenti joined the MPAA. He has been there ever since, managing a fair share of technological tempests. Video, cable, the debate over ratings, and the increasing prevalence of piracy -- Valenti has steered the motion picture industry through all of these storms.

Some of your arguments against DeCSS and iCraveTV sound familiar: whenever a new medium arises, the old hesitates. In the 1970s, movie studios sued Sony on the grounds that its Betamax technology would allow people to illegally tape and copy movies -- causing huge losses to the movie industry; but the studios lost. If you had won, companies like Blockbuster -- which provides the movie industry with billions -- would never have arisen. Why are these cases different?

Yes, I know that argument. But if you think about it a minute, you will see that the digital world is as far away from the analog world as the lightning is from the lightning bug. For example, in analog you have to go down to a Blockbuster store, then you have to copy it, then it has to be sent physically. Somebody's got to take a truck or a car or DHL and get it to another country. There is a brutish kind of awkward distribution system. Not so on the Internet, where some obscure person sitting in a basement can throw up on the Internet a brand new motion picture, and with the click of a button have it go with the speed of light to 6 billion people around the world, instantaneously. It's totally different, totally different.

So you don't fear that you're cutting off a potential revenue stream with these suits?

No. We want to use the Internet. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been invested by the movie companies, by the broadcasters, by other companies, by sports -- by everybody -- who believe the Internet has the greatest work potential in the memory of man. This is an extraordinary new delivery system. And we certainly want to take advantage of it. But there has to be some assumed rules of the game, otherwise everything you have can be pilfered.

How do you propose to stop "pilfering?"

I don't know. All I know is that 18 months from now the technology today will seem very primitive. Technology is just baffling everyone in the celerity with which it's looping, so the answer is, I can't give you an answer. But by God, we're going to find one. We're devoting a lot of resources, with our kinsmen in the copyright arena.

We formed what is called a copyright assembly just two weeks ago, in which every single enterprise in this country to which copyright protection is vital -- professional baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, NASCAR, NCAA, broadcasters, television stations, cable systems, music songwriters, movies, television programs -- they've all banded together to try and make it clear to the Congress that if a hosting or thievery or absconding or illegal use, or unauthorized use of the property of all these enterprises -- which, by the way, dominate the world -- is allowed to go untended by some kind of a protective shield, the nation's economy is the loser.

What about the arrest of Jon Johansen, the Norwegian teenager partly responsible for DeCSS: did the MPAA have anything to do with it?

That was done by Norwegian prosecutors. We were not involved in that.

Not at all?

Well we were concerned about it, but we did not cajole the prosecutor in Norway to do something about this. This was an effort undertaken by the law enforcement authorities in Norway. Now, I'm not criticizing them though. I wholeheartedly endorse what they did.

So what constitutes fair use of a DVD in your eyes -- besides simply buying a DVD and using one of the MPAA's authorized players?

Any use by which you buy it at a price. It's like saying is there any other way you can get into a movie theater without buying a ticket. The answer is, you can sneak in, I suppose. But is that right? And if somebody says, 'You're interfering with my freedom of speech and freedom of movement. I just want to go into your theater but I don't want to pay any money for it' -- the absurdity of that becomes quite apparent. I'm baffled by some of the people that have written me [laughter] rather angry e-mails that I'm interfering with freedom of speech, and I'm a Luddite, and I'm trying to hold back the tide like an awkward king. I don't understand that. Because it literally makes no logic, no sense.

But in terms of the iCraveTV and DeCSS injunctions, (which the courts handed down in January), both are keeping people from accessing the product of the Motion Picture Association.

They're not at all. I don't follow you're logic there.

For instance, take someone in, say, Eastern Europe, who wants to watch the Super Bowl, but they can't because the NFL hasn't licensed any distributor in their country. If it was on the Net, they would have access to it -- and that would expand the NFL's audience.

But if it was on the Net, 6 billion people would have access to it. And what happens to those market segments to which you have sold. You've sold the Super Bowl to Britain, to Belgium, to France, you've sold it to Portugal. And that's fine. Now, you put it on some obscure Web site in Afghanistan and all of the sudden, it's in every computer in the world, simultaneously. So you have a desperate collision there.

Couldn't filmmakers and TV producers give access to 6 billion people, bringing in new customers and offering their advertisers a truly massive audience?

Well, that's fine, but how would you license it. Let's say we go to an Internet company and say, here's a movie, and we will license it to you and you can send it to the whole world. Now, if we can work out a negotiated price, that very well may be one of the distribution outlets of the future -- so long as there is a fair negotiated price for the delivery of that movie to 6 billion people.

But is iCraveTV -- streaming a Post-It sized-window that doesn't have much visual brilliance -- an actual threat to such agreements?

Well, can you imagine broadband access, a 2000 percent improvement in the quality of the technology? And you let an iCrave get away with that? Why, it would put those television stations out of business.

Well then, who do you think should own the content rights to these TV shows?

Under U.S. law, under the rubric of works for hire, the movie studio, or whoever finances and distributes the film owns the copyright.

But right now it's pretty simple. There's a distributor and programs. How do you think it's going to shake out online?

Well, the copyright is owned by a specific entity. The NFL owns a copyright to all of its games, and the Super Bowl. Baseball owns the rights to its games and the world series. Movie studios own the rights to their movies, and so forth and so on. It's the copyright.

How do think that copyright will be spread out? For example, with the NFL?

They'll figure this out. What the NFL wants is the widest distribution of its content with some measure of control. For example, the NFL may sell Super Bowl rights to Europe. And they're in 10 countries. Now if you allow an iCrave to pick up the Super Bowl, under broadband access with a picture that is pristine and pure, and suddenly it's invading all of Europe, the people who licensed that from the NFL say, 'Hey, wait a minute. Why the hell should I pay you millions of dollars, when it's coming in over something else, and they're also getting advertising at a cheaper rate. So you have ruined our license agreement.'

Well, of course the NFL would find that the value of its product had been severely shrunk because of the intrusion of an iCrave-type Web site that is using their material in an unauthorized fashion.

Now, isn't it possible that you and the Motion Picture Association, having been in an old-medium mentality for a long time, just don't really get what all of this freedom means?

You're suggesting that there's not one single smart guy that works for any of these companies. I just take exception to you. I don't believe that simply because I understand the Internet that I'm smarter, that my vision is longer, my understanding is deeper. That's foolish, totally foolish. We've got some of the most extraordinary people in the world. We've been working with Cal Tech and MIT, and others -- New York Institute of Technology; the finest brains in the so-called technological world, and that's going on all the time.

What about yourself: have you ever downloaded an MP3 or heard one?

No, I haven't done that, but I have people on my staff who have done it. And just because I haven't done it doesn't mean -- you know, I haven't excavated King Tut's tomb, but I've seen some of the things that came out of it.

One final point: today there's webcasting. I don't know what it's going to be called tomorrow, I don't even know where it's going tomorrow. I do know that with broadband access and DSL, that's going to be primitive in two years. All of this technology will seem old-fashioned in two years.

I have been in meetings with the Bill Gates and the Warren Buffets and Jay Walker, and Jeff Bezos, and Jerry Yang, and all these people, and they don't know where it's going either. They're making judgments. They're making educated judgments about how they're going to fashion the future, but I'm telling you: the future is like walking down some unlit corridor, and it gets darker and darker as you move into it. And after a while you're moving on instinct alone.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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