In the ongoing battle between Hollywood and Silicon Valley over the future of entertainment, two major events - one tragic, the other, comical - have defined the last few weeks.
The tragedy was the apparent suicide of "Open Internet" activist Aaron Swartz. It provoked an outpouring of support for Swartz's at-times radical vision and returned the debate about whether online content should roam free of copyrigh to the national agenda.
The comedy was Kim Dotcom, whose Megaupload site was shut down by the U.S. government last year on the grounds that it was enabling Internet content piracy. Dotcom (not his real name) rolled out a new site last weekend, from the relative safety of New Zealand. He isn't even messing around with the "upload" part any more; the new site is simply called "Mega."
Swartz and Dotcom don't deserve to be lumped together. Swartz was committed to a noble if periodically misguided struggle, although he skirted and tested the patience of the law. A question has emerged about whether the federal government prosecuted him too aggressively for "liberating" thousands of academic papers from an MIT database. California Congressman Darrell Issa, who along with Swartz successfully opposed the SOPA/PIPA anti-piracy legislation that nearly passed Congress last year, is asking that question. Despite that, Swartz was willing to push the envelope with his actions.
Dotcom is a huckster and a probable criminal who's poking a finger in the eye in the U.S. government by reviving Megaupload as an encrypted, still relatively anonymous file-sharing site pitched as a Dropbox competitor but with features that could allow it become the Son of Megaupload.
And then there's Harvey Weinstein. He's emerged as the most vocal critique of the Open Internet movement that he regards as an excuse to steal. Motion Picture Association of America CEO Chris Dodd, Hollywood's lobbyist in chief in Washington, plies the corridors of power in Washington. Weinstein just goes to places like London and now Sundance and shoots his mouth off.
As for movie piracy, a subject near and dear to Weinstein, he's looking for President Obama to take up the cause -- something the chief executive failed to do during his first term.
"All of these companies are stealing from us," he told [a group of entertainment industry executives at Sundance]. "When [former Sen. Christopher Dodd, president of the MPAA] said, 'We're gonna get these guys,' the president backed off. I don't think he'll back off now. It was an election year, and he had to take pragmatic political stance to survive."
Hmmm... Weinstein, for his part, is as much a true believer in copyright as Swartz was in its irrelevance. But is Weinstein right about Obama? After all, last August the President took to Reddit — a platform that Swartz helped create — and said all kinds of nice things about the Open Internet when asked if he would push to add online freedom to the Democratic Party's national platform in 2012:
Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too. We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody - from those who are expressing an idea to those to want to start a business. And although there will be occasional disagreements on the details of various legislative proposals, I won't stray from that principle - and it will be reflected in the platform.
Weinstein's perspective on this is more trenchant. Obama is circling the issue, echoing the claims of many venture capitalists — investors in the kind of Silicon Valley startups that need an Open Internet to make serious money — that legislation like SOPA/PIPA will exert a chilling effect on the business of technology.
Weinstein doesn't buy it. He has a point. Silicon Valley wants content to be free — and copyright to be relaxed — because the business model of startups and even established tech firms like Google relies on the opportunity to engage in creative thievery. That scenario horrifies Hollywood, and for good reason: technology platforms like Facebook and YouTube are displacing the distribution networks — theaters, TV, DVDs — that have paid for a hundred mansions in Malibu.
Apple's iTunes put the music industry at the feet of Silicon Valley.
Hollywood isn't going there.
In this respect, Weinstein is an almost ideal if somewhat controversial figure to take up the cause of copyright. His career is synonymous with edgy filmmaking, yet he's very successfully crashed the posh Hollywood party. This year, two of the movies he produced, "Silver Linings Playbook" and Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained," were nominated for Best Picture Oscars.
If either film wins, you have to wonder whether Weinstein will air his views on the thieves of Silicon Valley while holding a golden statue in his hand.