RealTime IT News

Media, Political Names Step Into Piracy Thicket

NEW YORK -- Media, technology and networking giants are teaming up to tackle what they call key problems with digital content distribution.

Calling themselves Arts+Labs, the coalition counts major stakeholders in content distribution and creation -- including Viacom, NBC Universal and the Songwriters Guild of America (SGA) -- as well as networking titans AT&T and Cisco, and Microsoft, as members. The co-chairs are also noted political advisors with Republican and Democratic experience.

Together, the members hope their collective heft can help tackle obstacles in the way of legal downloads -- namely rampant online piracy.

Mike McCurry, the former White House press secretary to President Bill Clinton and co-chair of Arts+Labs, said the group is addressing the challenges of getting content to consumers.

Other goals include promoting and ensuring the availability of legally downloadable content and ensuring that high-speed networks are capable of supporting businesses selling and distributing that content.

For Arts+Labs' other co-chair Mark McKinnon, who has worked with the presidential campaigns of President George W. Bush and John McCain, a big part of the problem is that consumers just don't know how to find legal downloads, and turn to illegal sources -- like peer-to-peer (P2P) networks -- as an alternative.

A lot of consumers just don't know how to get legal content, McKinnon asserted. So the Arts+Labs group aims to operate "with mutual respect for consumers and artists' rights. That goes hand-in-hand in making sure that content creators are compensated properly."

McCurry also said the group wants to encourage new business models around legal downloads, and cited NBC's Hulu Web television service, Amazon's download unit and DVD rental service NetFlix's streaming content features as examples of successful, legal content distribution channels.

He and McKinnon also praised the efforts of Pandora's streaming audio and music recommendation service, which, in a bit of irony, is near financial collapse due to recently imposed industry royalties it must pay for the content it promotes.

Arts+Labs was light on how it plans to address these issues. Representatives today said their current concern is recruiting new members among both content and technology companies, and encouraging discussions about the need for industry-wide improvements to curb illegal downloads.

At the same time, the group has a sizable degree of lobbying credibility to bring to the table. In addition to his work as press secretary to former President Clinton, McCurry was until last week chairman of Hands Off the Internet -- an industry group that's against Net neutrality legislation.

McKinnon is McCurry's Republican counterpart, thanks to his work as chief media advisor to the campaigns of President Bush and Sen. John McCain.

He and McCurry were joined at the press conference by two of Arts+Labs' advisory board members: SGA President Rick Carnes and intellectual property lawyer Chuck Sims, from the law firm of Proskauer Rose.

Net Neutrality
Arts+Labs' founding co-chairs and advisory board members. From left, Proskauer Rose attorney Chuck Sims, SGA President Rick Carnes and group co-chairs Mark McKinnon and Mike McCurry. Photo: Chris Saunders

Carnes brings additional lobbying experience to the cause. He went to bat on behalf of the music industry before Congress on a number of occasions. For instance, he lobbied Congress in support of the landmark Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 -- a major win for the recording industry that gave it copy protections and royalties on devices and media, in response to concerns about copyright abuse in consumer digital taping.

A new alliance in the war over Net neutrality?

One of the group's key focuses is ensuring that network operators are given the flexibility to manage their networks -- a long-used phrase that in recent months has been interpreted by ISPs like Comcast as license to throttle bandwidth for heavy peer-to-peer users.

Comcast's efforts came under fire from the Federal Communications Commission. Now Comcast is recasting its forcing the nation's argest cable ISP to rethink its stance on throttling back some users.

While the debate over Comcast's rights to manage its networks rages in Washington -- along with discussions about the larger implications for the Net neutrality movement, which seeks to ensure networks must treat all traffic equally -- Arts+Labs is looking to steer clear of the debate.

"We have not taken a position [on Net neutrality]. We think that debate is now parked with the FCC," McCurry said. Still, he added, "networks need to be 'smart,'" or managed in a way that takes anticipates networks' needs.

McKinnon further spelled out Arts+Labs' view on dealing with the prickly issues of network management. While the group is in favor of "whatever we can do that's legal and appropriate to allow networks to manage their pipes," he added that for the moment, Arts+Labs is mainly concerned with simply getting content and technology stakeholders talking.

"We're just trying to get these people in the room together to agree on some rules."