Hollywood has no choice but to engage with its audiences as part of its efforts to confront intellectual property piracy and to figure how to make user-generated content work for rather than against industry interests, Leah Weil, senior executive vice president and general counsel of Sony Pictures Entertainment, told an audience at the law school recent.

Image Credit: Sony Music

Weil, who oversees all legal matters relating to Sony Pictures divisions worldwide, including motion pictures, television, and home and digital entertainment, spoke recently with Steve Krone, director of the Donald E. Biederman Entertainment and Media Institute as part of Southwestern’s “Conversation with…” speaker series.

Piracy and the Industry

When asked about piracy as an issue for the entertainment industry, Weil was blunt, saying: “It sucks” and is huge.

Piracy, as many in the industry, including Weil, see it, is theft. Pirates are thieves but their contemporary notoriety gives them a curious cachet, she said. Hollywood used to be the “cool kids” in school but pirates, with their tech savvy, now may be. Weil said piracy initially was the “cool thing to do” for teenagers but now has blossomed into a huge trade that harms the entertainment industry.

So what can the industry do to combat piracy? While there is no clear, single answer, there are ways Hollywood could address this woe. It should collaborate with technology companies, such as Google, to prevent access to pirate sites or find a way to work with those who run illicit operations. Though Weil said she has not seen a genuine willingness by pirates, who sometimes call themselves uber fans, to work with the industry, she would be willing to open a dialogue.

She said the industry also must educate the public to curb piracy, such as informing audiences where they legally may find free content. She noted that Sony’s cracker.com site, for example, gives consumers free content. After she mentioned the site, there were many murmurs of discovery in the crowd.

User-generated content 

User-generated content has received mixed signals from the entertainment industry. Many artists, writers, creators, and executives rejected it but as time went on, some began to accept it and see it as a vehicle for creativity. Weil, like most in the industry, see it, bottom line, as ripping off creative ideas.

This, she contended, is especially so when websites, such as YouTube, allow the public to post videos containing copyrighted work without owner permission.

Because this form also allows for open creativity, it is likely there will be certain permissible uses in the future, she said, giving Harry Potter as an example. Those behind the boy wizard series first sought to restrain user-generated content, then after fan backlash, they loosened up; user-generated content since has helped launch business ideas, such as Pottermore, and generate hype surrounding the Harry Potter brand.

This content and the entertainment industry will stay in a love-hate relationship until better bounds are determined between efforts to bar it and embracing it for the way it builds public and fan interest, activity and support, Weil said, noting the industry must ways to make user-generated content work for it.

The next scheduled series speaker, on April 29, will be Paul Williams, President and Chairman of ASCAP.