The US is missing the one tool that can save our creative communities

After 30+ years of working as an indie film distributor, I became CreativeFuture’s CEO out of a deep concern that our creative community is struggling to survive in the digital age due to piracy. And 10 years later, I am saddened to report that the struggle for survival remains very real for creatives. 

America has always been at the forefront of innovation in technology, and the source of that innovation is often films, television shows, music, and other types of entertainment aligning with American values. Despite the long history of innovation in our creative communities, the U.S. is somehow lacking a commonsense and extremely effective anti-piracy tool: site blocking. And we need it now more than ever. 

A report released by Digital Citizens Alliance in August 2020 found that pirated streaming subscription services are used by an estimated 30 million individuals in the U.S. alone, generating over a billion dollars in revenue annually for the criminal enterprises operating these services. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, this widespread infringement costs the U.S. economy between $29.2 and $71 billion, and between 230,000 and 560,000 jobs, every year. 

What is as incomprehensible? The fact that there are commonsense measures in place around the world that have proven to be effective anti-piracy tools, but that aren’t available here at home. 

One such tool, judicially-ordered “site blocking,” allows courts to direct internet service providers to block local access to offshore websites found to be dedicated to piracy. Such site blocking has proven to be an effective remedy against piracy in the more than 40 countries that have implemented court-adjudicated site blocking — including western democracies like Canada and the UK. 

Numerous studies have shown the dramatic reductions in piracy that result, in countries ranging from Portugal (69.7 percent) to Australia (53 percent). And, in a 2018 joint study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Chapman University, site blocking led users who previously frequented major pirate sites to change their behavior after those sites were blocked. 

In fact, the users subsequently increased their visits to legal streaming sites. In one representative sampling from the study, “blocking 19 different major piracy sites caused a meaningful reduction in total piracy and subsequently led former users of the blocked sites to increase their usage of paid legal streaming sites such as Netflix by 11% on average.” 

This kind of shift away from illegal pirate sites and toward the legal marketplace could be a game-changer not only for America’s film and television industry and its 2.4 million workers, but for all Americans. Film and television projects pay out $21 billion per year to more than 260,000 businesses in cities and small towns across the country—and the industry itself is composed of more than 122,000 businesses, 92 percent of which employ fewer than 10 people. And piracy threatens to undermine all of it. 

All the evidence indicates that as site blocking scales up to include the major pirate sites, it creates systemic change — by shifting consumer behavior away from stealing content and toward purchasing it. But just because proper site blocking legislation would make it easier for authorities in America to cut off illegal websites at scale does not mean — as site blocking critics have suggested — that it would open up abuse by rightsholders or negatively impact lawful internet use. 

On the contrary, as found by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, well-crafted site blocking legislation and court orders, such as the ones “in Australia, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere have built-in safeguards to ensure that only rights holders with high-quality cases — those involving websites that are dedicated to copyright infringement—are granted an injunction.” 

Rather than harming internet freedoms, these well-vetted, court-adjudicated site blocking measures targeting large-scale commercial piracy operations (not sites that accidentally, or incidentally, host pirated material) are associated with countries with the strongest records on internet freedom. In fact, many of the countries that permit judicial site blocking, including Canada, Australia, and the UK, ranked higher than the U.S. in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest annual index of the state of democracy around the world. 

The takeaway? There is little, if any, evidence of a negative correlation between site blocking and freedom of expression. 

It is time for these outdated arguments against commonsense anti-piracy tools to stop. Protecting the creative industries has always been a bipartisan issue, and I hope that members of Congress on both sides of the aisle will soon be ready to discuss site blocking legislation. I know that they believe in preserving the incredibly robust economic contributions of the creative industries while ensuring creatives will continue to produce the entertainment we all enjoy. 

Ruth Vitale is the CEO of CreativeFuture, a nonprofit coalition of over 500 companies and organizations and nearly 300,000 individuals devoted to promoting the value of creativity in the digital age. She has held top posts at Paramount Classics, Fine Line Features, and New Line Cinema.