MPAA's Chris Dodd & NATO's John Fithian Face Sundance Wrath Over SOPA/PIPA

MPAA head Chris Dodd and John Fithian, president/CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, brought their lobbying on behalf of content creators to a packed house at the Sundance Film Festival today. Both admitted to the panel they were blindsided by the swift backlash their organizations faced in their effort to pass the U.S. House of Representatives’ Stop Online Piracy Act and the U.S. Senate’s version Protect IP Act. The panel’s moderator called the MPAA and NATO to task for the legislation’s effective defeat: “You got your butt kicked.” It follows heavyweights like Google, Wikipedia, and thousands of websites joining forces and protesting what they claimed was a move to suppress free speech.

NATO’s Fithian said he had never witnessed such a reversal in momentum considering the legislation’s passage seemed all but assured in October. “This was the most amazing turnaround of public opinion in the 25 years I’ve been a professional lobbyist. We were up there since Day One and took 25 of my [exhibitor] CEOs and met with 50 members of Congress. We asked each member of Congress if there was anything they need to make the legislation clear and nobody said anything. Google read the legislation at the same time and didn’t say a word. But in November the greatest backlash ever occurred.” Fithian described the pushback as scare-mongering that convinced the public the legislation would shut down the internet. “For people who have spent our lives defending free speech, this was astounding.”

Fithian went on, “The backlash occurred, Google made its point, they’re big and tough and we get it. Hopefully now reasonable minds will prevail. Senator Dodd and his team are quite good at this. We’ll sit down with them and ask what has to be done to make legislation more narrowly tailored. But the reality is we have to stop these rogue websites. They’re stealing jobs from my members. It’s not Senator Dodd’s big wealthy studio executives, it’s the 160,000 Americans who earn on average $11 an hour at my cinemas. Those are the jobs at stake.”

Dodd acknowledged the tech industry threw a wrench into the MPAA’s effort. “I think most people agree about the theft of intellectual property. The question is then what do we do about it? We need to lower the emotion around this. Can we have a thoughtful and rational and intelligent discussion about a legitimate issue without being overloaded and swamped by misinformation?” Dodd said. “Content without technology, and technology without content, makes no sense. And asking people to make a choice between the two is ludicrous on its face. How do we get these two communities to realize that they need each other instead of asking consumers to pick a side?”

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