Napster Part II?: The MPAA, a Former Senator, and You

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It was announced Tuesday that Chris Dodd, the former five-term Democratic Senator from Connecticut, will be taking over as head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the trade organization that oversees the nominally voluntary MPAA ratings system. Dodd had recently announced his retirement from government, declining to run for a sixth term in office. At his new post, the former senator’s main concern will be curtailing internet piracy. “Protecting this great American export will be my highest priority,” said Dodd in a statement.

As both a film lover and a netizen, I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, the film industry that I love is in the process of being decimated by rampant online thievery, which—let’s be honest about it—is fast becoming the acquisition method of choice for the preponderance of young people today. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, this is killing many films’ chances of ever being made, never mind their chances of becoming successful. On the other hand, however, I’m mortified by the free speech-constrictive implications of what fighting online movie piracy will likely entail—namely, hunting down file sharers and (ab)users alike, and imposing legal restrictions on certain kinds of file traffic.

The Recording Industry of America’s battle against music piracy is surely the most storied precedent to the MPAA’s presumed-to-be-impending crackdown. I’m sure many of us could recount with ease the rise and fall of Napster (whose founder Sean Parker was depicted by actor/recording artist Justin Timberlake in last year’s Oscar hopeful The Social Network), which will have ended a decade ago this July. As we know, though, and as a plurality of pending RIAA litigation serves to prove, rooting out online piracy is a tough nut to crack. Simply going after the ‘Pirate Bays’ of the Internet isn’t enough. No sooner can one illicit file-sharing site be shut down that another sprouts up.

Of course, none of this commentary is new, but with the MPAA about to enter the online piracy fight in earnest, a precipice is upon us. Will the film ratings monolith pursue new, creative solutions to the fast-aging problem of online piracy? Or will it settle for an enforcement-centered status quo? Given the simultaneous imperatives of protecting intellectual property rights and ensuring access to a free and open internet, does an agreeable middle-ground even exist? Or has the pay-to-play model for film access lost its long-term viability?

Given the ostensibly conflicting ideological backgrounds of the MPAA and its new head, it will be interesting to see how these dynamics play out. For the sake of the art that I love, though, I sincerely hope for an upheaval of the status quo, and soon. Users need to realize that it is incumbent upon them as appreciators of media, of art to pay for the works they access. And similarly, the MPAA, RIAA and the like need to figure out how to induce such user participation without turning the Internet into an artistic police state. The present antagonism is unsustainable. Users and industry need each other, perhaps more than either party realizes.