Back in December of 2013, I attended Variety’s Content Protection Summit and delivered what turned out to be a pretty prophetic statement:
“There’s a mistaken belief by many of my peers that piracy is somehow good. … I’m not sure they really understand … that the people who pirate are not then going to choose legal downloads or legal viewing in the future.”
In February, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University released a study in which they sought to determine if the promotional impact of piracy (the benefit of buzz) outweighs the harm caused by piracy.
Spoiler alert: It doesn’t.
On the heels of this affirmation, I’m feeling emboldened to make another prediction — and I think this one is a slam-dunk:
If the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approves Chairman Tom Wheeler’s regulatory proposal to “open” set-top boxes, it will make piracy as easy and dangerous in the living room as it is on laptop and mobile devices.
Wait, you didn’t know piracy was rampant on the Internet? Well, the figures shocked even me, and as a producer of horror and science fiction, I’m not easily scared.
The season five premiere of my show, The Walking Dead, was illegally downloaded by roughly 1.27 million unique IP addresses worldwide within 24 hours of its debut.
If we can agree that piracy on that scale is a serious problem, then let me explain why the FCC’s regulatory proposal would spell disaster for those of us who are trying to figure out how to keep making the movies and TV shows audiences love. And I’m not talking about just the actors and the producers. Hundreds of thousands of crew members across the country will be out of jobs, too. Studios and networks can’t keep making content if they stop receiving revenue from legitimate sources.
In 2010, the FCC issued a regulatory proposal backed by a handful of tech companies that would have allowed them to repurpose pay-TV content for their own commercial gain — by charging fees, selling advertisements and collecting data — without having to enter into the kinds of agreements that ensure the people who created that content are actually compensated for doing so.
Fortunately, the FCC declined to pursue the AllVid proposal because of legal, technological and policy concerns. But now Chairman Wheeler has proposed his own set-top box regulations — and they are unsettlingly similar to the 2010 AllVid mandate.
The stated purpose of the new proposal is to replace set-top boxes with an open standard where web content — both legitimate and pirated — can be presented on equal footing.
This proposal would end up reducing the security options available to prevent theft. TV distributors use complex security systems to ensure that the creative content on their networks, set-top boxes and apps all comply with the appropriate creative licenses and restrictions. In contrast, search engines like Google and digital video platforms like YouTube routinely show — and prioritize — stolen content in search results.
It would also allow Google — and for that matter set-top box manufacturers from all over the world, including China (where rogue boxes are being built by the millions) — to create and market applications or boxes with software that will treat legitimate and stolen material exactly the same, and may in many cases help to steer consumers to piracy.
After the paid results, the first option is AMC and the second is a pirate site — literally, side by side.
While you may not think the placement of pirate and legitimate sites matters in search results like this, a recent experiment showed that users are more likely to purchase legally when legal sites are prioritized over pirate sites — and they’re more likely to pirate when pirate links are promoted.
Chairman Wheeler’s set-top box proposal places no restrictions on search results. If approved, it would allow device-makers to prominently display pirated content from the Internet alongside legitimate options — just like in my “watch Fear the Walking Dead” Google search.
Imagine Madison Square Garden being forced to open its doors to allow street vendors to sell fake and knock-off New York Knicksmerchandise alongside the legitimate items in the stadium stores. Think of the advantages the street vendors would enjoy by not paying to license the goods they were selling.
So why would the federal government want to reward Google and rogue set-top box manufacturers with rules that will put stolen content in competition with legitimate content on TV sets across America?
That’s a question only the FCC and Tom Wheeler can answer.
As for me, let’s think about the fact that it took a couple of years and a few million piracy transactions for people to start realizing online piracy is a problem.
The FCC should reject this new AllVid proposal and help prevent piracy from becoming as prevalent in the living room as it is on laptop and mobile devices. If they don’t, I’m afraid that all of us who create, market and broadcast legitimate content will be like the zombies on my show: the walking dead.
Don’t get me wrong. I love zombies. But the AllVid proposal is an idea that should never have been brought back from the dead.
Gale Anne Hurd is a producer of films and television shows including including the Terminator trilogy, Aliens, Armageddon and The Walking Dead.