Progress Against Piracy: MPA finds Asia-Pacific allies in copyright-infringement fight

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2016 marks the tenth year that the Motion Picture Association has partnered with CineAsia, the only international convention dedicated to Asian cinema exhibition and distribution, to present its annual Asia-Pacific Copyright Educator (ACE) Award honoring individuals throughout the region whose tireless work has served to raise awareness in their markets about the value of screen content, and the need to provide a strong copyright framework for filmmakers.

The ACE award is a natural extension of the MPA’s core objective to promote and protect screen communities through a better understanding of the creative process and the economic benefits resulting from strong intellectual-property rights protection. Nowhere is this objective more relevant than in the Asia-Pacific region.

Home to more than 60% of the world’s population and accounting for around one-third of global GDP, it should come as no surprise that the Asia-Pacific region is a shining light on the international box-office stage, with revenues up 13% in 2015 to a total of USD 14.1 billion. China itself accounts for nearly 50% of that amount and is now the single biggest market for cinema exhibition outside of the United States, by quite some margin. Seven of the other top 20 international box-office markets—namely, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Hong Kong—are also in Asia-Pacific, where regional gate revenues have collectively increased by 56% over the past five years.

Yet regional box-office revenues still fall well short of their full potential due to a number of market impediments throughout Asia that detrimentally impact the movie industry, and in many cases the exhibition sector in particular. Perhaps the most fundamental challenge relates to the sector’s basic infrastructure and capacity; there simply aren’t enough theatres and screens throughout the region to accommodate Asian audiences’ ever-growing demand to watch movies at a nearby cinema.

Consider India, for example, which is the fourth-biggest international market for box-office revenues outside of the United States and also the world’s largest film producer. At the end of 2015, the country had 11,170 screens servicing a population of 1.2 billion people, equating to a screen density of 8.7 screens for every million people. The United States, by comparison, had an estimated 40,174 screens for its population of 324.8 million people, or a screen density of 123.7 screens for every million people. China started the year with 32,000 screens, and adding around 20 screens per day it reached 35,000 screens by the end of June 2016 for its population of 1.36 billion, equating to a screen density of 25.7 screens for every million people.

Yet in terms of box-office attendance, India far surpassed both markets, coming in first in the world with an estimated two billion tickets sold. Clearly, therefore, the market can sustain more cinemas. Imagine the potential for revenue growth if the ratio numbers for India reflected above were to grow by a factor of ten! Creating this type of awareness, so that policy-makers can create incentives to allow, encourage and facilitate the necessary investment into this high-growth economic sector, is central to the MPA’s mission objective of promoting and protecting screen communities.

But aside from infrastructure deficiencies such as screen density, and other more complex trade barriers and market access restrictions (such as distribution and screen quotas, foreign-investment restrictions and excessive taxation, to name just a few), exhibition revenues in Asia are also curtailed by intolerably high levels of copyright piracy. It’s hard for any legitimate business to compete with free. Ironically, all too often the problem begins right in the very place it hurts the most and at the worst possible time, when front-line releases are camcorded in theatres during their opening release and uploaded onto the Internet. Last year, we traced 72 different audio and video camcord releases of MPA titles back to cinemas throughout the region.

Too many jurisdictions in the region still have insufficient laws and regulations on their books to effectively address unauthorized camcording. The offense sometimes depends on first establishing an infringement in the underlying work or in other instances may not be defined as a criminal offense at all. Here again, the MPA’s initiatives with governments throughout the region include raising awareness about the problem and its impact on their local businesses and national economies, and offering assistance filling any legislative gaps or deficiencies found to exist. We’ve therefore worked tirelessly with lawmakers and policy representatives throughout the region to recommend and comment upon draft laws and regulations prohibiting, and deterring, the use of a recording device in certain defined premises.

In addition to addressing the supply side of the industry’s camcording problem, there are also certain things that can be and are being done throughout Asia to help restrict the distribution of the unauthorized copies. Fifteen years ago, pirated DVDs distributed throughout local markets in Asia were the primary media outlet for camcorded movies. Although illegal DVDs are still a serious problem, unauthorized online distribution via downloading and streaming sites, cyberlockers and P2P networks has today become an even bigger problem. In many instances, rogue sites frequented by Asian Internet users are housed and operated outside of their country’s jurisdiction.

Site blocking has therefore emerged as an uncomplicated, cost-effective and judicially defensible tool to address this very problem. And so far it hasn’t broken the Internet, as some would have us believe! By now, a total of 40 countries around the world, including six in Asia, have enacted and implemented specific laws, regulations and judicial procedures intended to cut off the supply of pirated content at its source by preventing Internet subscribers from accessing significantly infringing sites. Consumer research undertaken by the MPA throughout Asia has confirmed that most Internet users understand and accept that a safe and open Internet necessarily requires law and order online as well as offline, and therefore most of them with whom we’ve spoken aren’t surprised by government-imposed restrictions against obscenity, terrorism, racism and religious intolerance, or even copyright infringement.

Jurisdictions like Australia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea all engage in site-blocking against copyright infringing sites either through specific legislative provisions within their copyright laws involving a judicial determination, or through administrative regulations overseen by government regulatory authorities. Such enforcement has been shown to be effective where it’s been utilized, and other countries in the region should follow suit, to better protect their local markets as well.

Recognizing individuals throughout Asia who champion important issues such as these in their national territories by honoring them during a gathering of the international screen community thus provides a meaningful synergy of purpose between the MPA ACE Awards and the annual CineAsia conference. This year, we’re pleased to honor the chairman of the Telangana Film Chamber of Commerce’s Anti-Video Piracy Cell, Rajkumar Akella, for his selfless dedication to enhancing creators’ rights in India. With ambassadors such as him, and our previous MPA ACE Award winners, enlisted into the cause, the MPA is proud to do its part to promote and protect screen communities everywhere.