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New York City Launches a New Campaign to Fight Digital Piracy and Content Theft

Creative NYC: Campaign against Content Theft

The Creative NYC: Campaign against Content Theft summit took place at the Tweed Courthouse on Tuesday, September 13, 2011, and brought together representatives from the City of New York, the entertainment industry including the Motion Picture Association of America and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, academia and law enforcement, who participated in panels and provided a thoughtful review of the current state of digital piracy. Because New York City is a center for the creative industries, the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment has been at the forefront of this issue. The summit was broken into two sessions: education and law enforcement. The sessions were led by Stuart Sucherman of Sucherman Consulting Group and featured panels of speakers and an open dialogue among attendees.

"Tyranny of Small Decisions"

In the past 20 years, intellectual property theft has gone from a nuisance to a serious threat to the US economy. Stephen Siwek, an economist who studies the creative industries, explained how the core copyright industries contribute $900 billion to the national economy per year. Back in 2005, it was estimated that 373,000 jobs were lost because of piracy nationwide. New York, as the home to industries like publishing and broadcasting, feels these losses keenly as nearly 700,000 New Yorkers make their living working in or supporting the creative industries. According to a Tera study, which was conducted for the European Union, when the data is extrapolated for the US and if piracy remains unchecked by 2015, the US could experience 700,000 - 1.2 million cumulative job losses. Siwek also pointed out how successful these industries are in foreign markets. "Our industries do very well in competition with legitimate non-US copyright industries," he said. "Their biggest problem is with non-legitimate competition from pirates."

Scott Harbinson, the international representative of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees explained how workers in the entertainment industry rely heavily on the royalties they receive from downstream sources, like DVDs, and that digital piracy directly affects those sources. Also at risk are low budget films, which rely almost 100% on downstream sources for their revenue. Creative America (, a recently launched coalition united to fight content theft, is working to raise awareness in the entertainment industry itself.

Most people who illegally download content online don't perceive their actions to be hurting anyone, but when millions of people make that same decision, the social harm is enormous, resulting in a so-called "tyranny of small decision," a concept expressed by Rick Cotton, NBCUniversal's executive vice president & general counsel and chairman of the US Chamber of Commerce's Coalition against Counterfeiting and Piracy. The accumulation of these decisions means that more than 24% of internet bandwidth goes to rogue sites.

Source: MarkMonitor, Traffic Report: Online Piracy and Counterfeiting, January 2011, CACP Analysis

Many people don't even realize that they're downloading illegal content because many rogue websites look 'real,' like their legitimate counterparts such as Hulu, Netflix or iTunes. Further, when you enter 'download movies' into an online search engine, the top results are often sites with illegal content. A generation has been raised to think that since it's so easy to access this content, it can't be wrong, but if road blocks are placed along the way, it's likely individuals would abide by the same laws they follow in the physical world. A recent poll suggested that if a person received a notice from their internet service provider (ISP) that they had illegally downloaded content, two-thirds of those polled said they would stop.

The need to educate children from a young age about piracy was a main emphasis at the summit. One of the attendees mentioned that her son had to sign a paper agreeing to acceptable Internet use practices on his first day of kindergarten.

Progress has begun in the fight against online piracy. In recent months, an agreement was reached between six major ISPs and the MPAA & the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to send notices to subscribers who engage in peer-to-peer (P2P) infringement. Best practices have been adopted by PayPal and major credit card companies to alert users when they're purchasing illegal content, and ad companies have begun to pledge that they will not to do business with infringing sites. Conversations are also taking place with search engines on how they can change their practices and work toward faster takedowns, fixing the 'autocomplete' function which often suggests illegal content and more prominently placing legitimate sources in search results.


Focusing on the role universities play in the fight against online piracy, Joe Storch from State University of New York and David Green from NBCU spoke about how schools have to accept the Higher Education Opportunity Act from Congress in order to receive federal funding. Included in these rules is that all colleges must notify their students that unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material may bring civil and criminal penalties. Schools must also have a written plan that includes procedures for handling unauthorized distribution. While universities are not required to actively monitor their networks for illegal activity, they must respond to notifications that such activity has taken place. They are also encouraged to provide technology-based deterrents and offer legal alternatives for accessing content. The online resource, a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology, has background info and suggested language that universities can use to formulate their own policies about copyright infringement.

Universities have taken various steps to decrease digital piracy on their campuses, however, there is still a great discrepancy in the range of roles that universities take on this pervasive issue. The University of Missouri-Columbia, for example, blocks all P2P sites while the University of Connecticut permits students to request a "day pass" to access P2P when they demonstrate they need it for research purposes. Baylor University's network recognizes when a student is using P2P and constricts bandwidth to slow distribution. At Stanford University, students face monetary fines, and after receiving a third notice, the student's internet will get shut down.

At Morrisville State College, which was presented at the summit as a case study for how one campus successfully addresses digital piracy, the school has installed an Audible Magic device after other efforts failed to protect its students from receiving costly settlement notices from the RIAA. This program detects when a copyrighted file transfer takes place, blocks the transfer and redirects the individual to a website that outlines the consequences of the piracy. Over time, behavior has changed significantly on campus, and now Morrisville receives about one "take down" notice per week. It had previously been ranked 13th in schools nationwide by the RIAA in terms of notices received in a given school year.

Piracy Doesn't Work in NYC

In late 2010, the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment launched its latest campaign to raise public awareness about internet piracy. In an effort to more effectively engage New Yorkers in the dialogue about internet piracy, focus groups were commissioned to determine whether the messaging was getting through to the target audience: young people. Sucherman Consulting Group brought together groups of currently enrolled college students in New York City and the surrounding areas. The participants were chosen based on their reported high frequency of accessing online content and their awareness of common sources of illegal content. During a detailed discussion, the participants expressed that they felt entitled to digital content and did not equate it with stealing. After considerable discussion the students were shown the Piracy Doesn't Work in NYC PSA video, which shows pedestrians being offered free DVDs - an offer, they are quickly told, will cost the boom mic operator standing nearby her job.

According to the focus group, the campaign had a demonstrative effect on the participants. One said, "It made me feel bad because I could see a real person who could potentially be affected. What if I am the person who causes that?" While students shrugged off the legal implications of accessing content illegally and universally rejected messengers perceived as authority figures, participants were receptive to hearing from recent graduates and peers from their community who are struggling to find a job because of the effects of piracy and other issues.

Create the Next Spot

Based on these findings, the next stage of the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment's effort to fight piracy officially launched at the summit. The Create the Next Spot Contest asks creative students in New York City to design the next public service announcement to address digital piracy and encourage teens and young adults to consider the impact of content theft. NYC students can visit and enter to win the opportunity to produce their own creative campaign with the help of a professional production company. Through October 19, 2011, local high school and college students can submit their video entries, which will be reviewed by a discerning panel of judges including: Whoopi Goldberg; Sway of MTV News; James Schamus, CEO of Focus Features; Doug Oines of the National Association of Theatre Owners; Katherine Oliver of the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment; and Dan Mahoney of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). The top ten entries will be posted online for public voting from November 7 to November 18, 2011. The student entry with the most votes will then be produced with a professional production company as the next campaign against content theft. It will be distributed on TV, in taxis and online in the winter of 2012.

Law Enforcement

During the evening session, when the conversation turned to law enforcement, it was noted by John Feinblatt, New York City's Criminal Justice Coordinator and Chief Policy Advisor to Mayor Bloomberg, that online piracy and counterfeit cases often suffer because they get measured against attention-grabbing cases involving murder or robbery, and by comparison are seen as unimportant. Feinblatt also noted that intellectual property enforcement is all too often focused on the single-event crime rather than on the larger organized criminal enterprise.

Marc Lorenti, assistant special agent in charge with Homeland Security Investigations(the new name for the US Immigration Customs Enforcement), shared the national perspective where intellectual property rights ranks high on HSI's agenda as agents investigate individuals and companies who attempt to import counterfeit goods and goods that violate copyrights, patents and trademarks like counterfeit pharmaceuticals, designer merchandise and electronics.

Recently, through its Operation in Our Sites campaign, HSI has seized over 140 illegal sites, and 86 sites have been forfeited to the US government. Another concern in the fight against counterfeits is health and safety. Fake pharmaceuticals can pose serious health threats when unsuspecting customers purchase what they assume to be safe products. "Toothpaste that costs ninety-nine cents should tell you it could be counterfeit," said Lorenti.

A conversation with members of the Manhattan and Queens District Attorney's Offices brought up points about how under current state law, sentences for counterfeiters can range from a conditional discharge with a fine or jail but there is no mandatory jail time associated with these convictions (other than predicate felony offenders). When the penalties and the cost of doing business are low, counterfeiters have little incentive to change their ways and continue to violate the law while recidivism costs taxpayers money. Offenders in federal court do face jail time under federal sentencing guidelines.

There have also been cases that revealed acts of terrorism in the US and abroad, such as the original World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and the Madrid train bombings were financed by the sale of illegal DVDs and CDs. Counterfeiting is often tied with organized crime and financing of terrorist and criminal enterprises.

Among the possible solutions discussed at the meeting were the suggestions to re-examine the legislation and increase the penalties attached to counterfeiting and piracy, educate the public that piracy is not a victimless crime, develop dedicated resources to fight the issue including opportunities for law enforcement and judiciary members to continue to learn about the issue and establish forums to discuss the challenges in combating it.

This summit was the beginning of a dialogue the City of New York wants to continue in order to influence change and reduce piracy. "This is a difficult and critical problem for New York and the entertainment industry," said Feinblatt. "The City is making progress, but more progress needs to be made."
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