Movies and Intellectual Property: Preserving Our Global Passion

April 26, 2014
Man Splices Together Reels of Film Before a Showing at a Theater

It's easy for most of us to get behind the theme for World Intellectual Property Day this year: "Movies, A Global Passion."  From Santa Monica, where I spent almost 20 years working in the entertainment sector, to Paris, France, where I most recently served four years as U.S. Ambassador, I have witnessed firsthand people's excitement and reverence for films -- Hollywood's in particular.

Why are they so popular? I think it's because American movies -- a major component of one of our largest export industries, the entertainment sector -- speak to who we are. When Thomas Jefferson said: "Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life's coming attractions," he might as well have been anticipating the birth of the movie industry.  Our movies -- on screens large and small -- are testaments to the elasticity of the imagination. And they also send a message to the world about our can-do attitude, spirit of innovation, and our belief that personal aspirations, freedom and inclusion should be everyone's moral birthright.

Safeguarding IP Rights: A Key Priority

My declaration of cultural pride, however, comes with a cautionary message.  As Assistant Secretary of State for the U.S. State Department's Economic and Business Bureau, safeguarding intellectual property rights is a key priority. And as we mark World IP Day, I urge all of us to understand our power as consumers to help or hurt the ecosystem that allows the movies we love to be made in the first place. When we casually buy pirated DVDs -- 90 percent of which come from illegal camcorder recordings in movie theaters -- or when we illegally stream that copy of our favorite movie from the Internet, we produce far reaching ripple effects.

Those effects range from supporting criminal syndicates to denying the livelihoods of millions who develop, produce, create, distribute or promote motion pictures and television programs. We are talking about an industry that supported 1.9 million jobs and $104 billion in total wages in 2011, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

It is difficult to estimate with any meaningful accuracy just how much our creative workers lose to piracy. But it's easy enough to understand who is losing out. We're not just talking about A-list actors, but employers and workers in small businesses, most of whom employ fewer than 10 people. That's the carpenter on the set of the hit TV show "Scandal," or the linguist working to make the Na'vi language in Avatar believable, or the popcorn cashier at your local multiplex. Like you and me, they are wage earners working long hours, paying taxes and worrying about feeding their families.

An International Issue

This isn't only an American problem. The effect on global film industries and jobs is just as devastating and wide reaching. While studies that estimate losses from piracy are problematic, as I mentioned, the scale involved certainly merits our attention. A 2012 Ernst and Young study, for example, found that India's Bollywood films have become so popular in the Asia and East Asia regions that piracy now adds up to more than $90 million in losses per year, the equivalent of 50,000 Indian jobs. Do we really want to divert such flows of money from the people who deserve it to those who don't?

We all have a vested interest in supporting the creativity generated by film industries from Hollywood to Bollywood to Nigeria's Nollywood.  Can we create a new environment for doing business that allows for continued prosperity but also respects intellectual property rights? Of course we can. But governments everywhere must renew their commitment to clear, simple and enforceable legal frameworks that protect the industry's creators and the livelihoods of all those who work with them.

Our Founding Fathers, Jefferson included, understood the importance of protecting intellectual property rights -- a principle that applies equally to film, books, software, music, medicines and other inventions that benefit civilization. That's why they enshrined a Copyright and Patent Clause to give "Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries" in the U.S. Constitution.  They -- and we -- are not alone. Many countries have protected intellectual property rights for hundreds of years and much of the world has committed to protect IP since 1994, under their commitments in the World Trade Organization. Unfortunately, not all countries have fully implemented them, so enforcement remains an enormous challenge in critical markets around the world.

In celebration of World Intellectual Property Day, I call upon every citizen and consumer, every entrepreneur and political leader to take an honest look at his or her attitude towards protecting those who work to create things that not only entertain us, but help illuminate life. If we want to continue to see the movies we love, we need to protect the people who make them. The power starts -- and it ends -- with all of us, not only people in the United States but everywhere.

About the Author: Charles H. Rivkin serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry originally appeared on the Bloomberg BNA Technology and Telecom Blog. 

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