The Costs of Creative Incentive: MPAA vs. Hotfile

With the rise of sites like Netflix, HBO GO and Hulu, the ability to instantaneously stream movies online has become part of our everyday lives and expectations. There’s nothing more frustrating than when a movie you’re dying to watch is unavailable for online viewing—that horrible moment you realize that you have to order the DVD from Netflix or hit up the nearest RedBox.

There are, however, sites that allow free access to films both in and out of the public domain—“cyberblockers.” What exactly are “cyberblockers?” These are usually file-hosting websites created for users to store large files. They are notorious for not regulating copyright-infringing content and, as a result, are often some of the most heavily trafficked sites in the world.

One in particular, Hotfile.com, has become the recent target of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA filed a lawsuit against Hotfile in February, 2011, claiming that the site violates copyright laws by electronically transmitting copies of works to both subscribers and non-subscribers of the site. Thus, the site infringes upon member studios’ works and those of other copyright holders because it makes money from what it doesn’t have permission to publish or screen.

Hotfile, and other similar sites, are often hard to prosecute because they claim limited liability for abuse committed by users, as long as they respond promptly to abuse notifications. But, if you log onto a site like megashare.com, the amount of new releases they have available for streaming—many of which are still in theaters—will show you how low abuse notifications must be on their list of priorities.

But is this infringement really damaging? I think the obvious answer is yes, it really is. Filmmakers and production companies shell out thousands, if not millions, of dollars to produce a film. When sites like Hotfile allow anyone to watch the finished film for free, the filmmakers don’t get paid for the views that their films receive on these sites and it adds up. Even though the films on these sites may be “nonrivalrous resources” (Lessig 21), I think Lessig would agree that in order to sustain the process of film production, the screenings of these films need to be controlled. In his own words, “otherwise one would have little incentive to produce these resources,” (14).

But what does the outcome of this case mean for both copyright holders and cyberblockers? Weighed in favor of the MPAA—Hotfile was ordered to pay damages to copyright holders—it’s now a model for other copyright disputes against similar sites. As nice as it might be to see a free film at home, it’s about time for some regulation. Even Milton, who’s arguably against licensing and censorship, proves that recognition is necessary for sustaining creative incentive; he states “no book be Printed, unlesse the Printers and the Authors name, or at least the Printers be register’d,” (Areopagitica).

Chris Dodd, chairman and CEO of the MPAA, tried to make an additional point when he stated that winning the case was “a victory for audiences who deserve to feel confident that the content they’re watching is high quality, legitimate and secure,” (“Hollywood Studios Win Massive Hotfile Lawsuit”). I disagree with Dodd and find myself much more in agreement with Milton and Kant when it comes to the risks of censoring an individual work’s creative content. I think it’s important to be careful and aware that the MPAA has become the omnipresent censor, whose word is the final judgment on the “quality and legitimacy” of a film. Kant warns that the result of this subjectivity under an association like the MPAA is the comfortable belief that “I have no need to think, if only I can pay,” (“What Is Enlightenment?”). We still need to think for ourselves whether or not a film has personal quality or merit.

I think there’s a solution that even Lessig, who’s not too fond of control, would agree with: the continued existence of “free” online resources, such as online forums where, in Kant’s belief, viewers can argue the regulation of copyright infringing materials as much as they want, while simultaneously obeying it. If there’s enough outcry, we can decide as a collective whether creative incentive is worth the regulation. But that’s not the point of this case.

Cyberblocking sites like Hotfile should be controlled for copyright infringement in order to protect the rights of the creative artist, instead of protecting the viewer from the potentially “bad quality” of a film.

LINKS:

Gardner, Eriq. “Hollywood Studio Wins Massive Hotfile Lawsuit.” Hollywood Reporter. 28 Aug 2013: n. page. Web. 4 Sep. 2013. <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/hollywood-studios-win-massive-hotfile-616764?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed: thr/news (The Hollywood Reporter – Top Stories)>.

Gardner, Eriq. “Read the MPAA’s Big Lawsuit Against ‘Cyberlocking’ Site Hotfile.” Hollywood Reporter. 08 Feb 2011: n. page. Web. 4 Sep. 2013. <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/blogs/thr-esq/read-mpaas-big-lawsuit-cyberlocking-97400&gt;.

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