At this week's All Things D conference — D10, which marked a decade of these retreats — Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher were gracious enough to invite Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel on stage to talk about the changing entertainment market as it relates to technology. Ari is an incredibly powerful player in film, TV, and increasingly even web content — he's the kind of guy who can say things like "you'll never work in this town again" and actually make it happen.
Now you probably haven't seen much of the real Ari, but you're likely familiar with the character of Ari Gold (played by Jeremy Piven) from HBO's bro-fest, Entourage. That Ari is a raging, expletive-spewing egomaniac whom I always thought was a broad exaggeration of the real thing. On Wednesday night, I learned that was not the case.
As you can see in the video below, when the time came for the Q&A session with Ari, I got up and asked a question that he didn't seem to like very much (my question starts at about 16:53, but you should watch the whole thing). The gist of my question was simple: does he think that in order to fight piracy, it's AT&T, Verizon, and Google's responsibility to create a roadblock to that content? Instead of answering or addressing the complication of the issue, he resorted to what amounts to an ad hominem attack.
Here's the thing: he didn't like the question because he didn't understand the analogy I was making. And he didn't understand the analogy, because he doesn't (or doesn't want to) understand the basic mechanics of how both copyright law and the internet work.
And that should scare the shit out of you. With the stakes as high as they are — and I do mean stakes as high as whether or not we'll continue to have a free and open internet — not understanding is the most dangerous thing you can do right now. Ari is not some small time guy — he's a titan who not only backed SOPA, but essentially admitted on stage that Hollywood paid for the bill through "fund raisers" for politicians. His brother is Rahm Emanuel, current mayor of Chicago, and former White House Chief of Staff to President Obama. If there's anyone in Hollywood with pull that can go beyond the sun-kissed shores of LA, it's Ari Emanuel.
This isn't the last you've seen of him — it's the first.
I want to break down what I was getting at in my question and explain it, so maybe the next time Ari and I talk, he won't be able to scream his way out of the conversation. Oh, who am I kidding? He's going to scream anyhow.
Funnily, my argument can be best illustrated by addressing the red herring Ari used that suggests child pornography and copyrighted works are somehow the same thing. They are in no material way the same thing, save for the fact that they both happen to be things that exist.
Identification and understanding of child pornography is a rather basic affair. Despite some fringe cases where an argument can be made that the work is art and not pornography, there is very little to consider when you find yourself looking at the thing. When writing about Emanuel's interview, TechDirt's Mike Masnick said it succinctly:
There is no "legal" child porn. There is no "authorized" child porn. There is no "fair use" child porn. There is no condition under which that content is legal and there are no legal questions to be answered in filtering it. Copyright is entirely different. You can't just "know" if the content is infringing. As we saw in the Viacom case, companies upload authorized stuff all the time, and it's often impossible to distinguish from unauthorized content. Separately, you can't create an algorithm that detects fair use. Or the public domain. Point being: it's not that easy and it's silly to claim otherwise.
But, here's the real kicker: no one is really blocking access to child porn. Google filters out child porn results from its auto-complete in search, but those pages can still be found. And even if Google were to block the pages, there are hundreds of search engines that won't. Child porn is still all over the internet. No magic switch has been flipped.
Even though Ari's point about child pornography isn't valid, I still agree with him that both child porn and stealing are wrong, and we should try and stop them. The problem with Ari is that he doesn't know how to stop stealing when it comes to copyrighted works, and neither does the tech industry. He's just really mad and wants the problem to be fixed —and because he's a blustery guy with money on the line, he's not really worried if we do in fact rip up the roads that lead to his house.
But I am, and you should be, because this is a job that requires a scalpel, not an axe.
The next day, Google's Sundar Pichai and Susan Wojcicki took to the stage, and Mossberg put the question to them: could they stop pirating if they wanted to? "I think he was misinformed. Very misinformed." Susan said.
Remember, there's probably no one in the world more knowledgable about how people find pirated material on the internet than these two.
"We have done as much as we possibly can, we do not want to be building a business based on piracy, we want to work with content owners. The problem is that identifying which copyright belongs to who is very complicated. It's not like child porn, when I see a piece of content, I don't know if you own the copyright."
She added, "If we're given something, we can solve all the technical parts, but at the end of the day we need to hear from the content owner. There's no formula, there's no algorithm."
What Ari seems to forget, and what maybe politicians and the film and TV industry seem to forget is the last time piracy was a flashpoint between the entertainment and tech industries, the problem was not solved by sledgehammer legislation. Or takedowns. Or yelling. It was solved by the music industry accepting that their old model was broken, and technologists figuring out a new way to do business. And that gets to the core of this problem for Ari. We didn't go back to the way things were after the RIAA sued college students — the industry changed.
He doesn't want to change his business model, and he will do anything he can to protect it — including altering the basic functionality of the internet. Pirating and Apple's resulting rise in the music business changed that business forever... and diminished its financial footprint. Entrenched companies that owned every part of the food chain suddenly discovered they were just another cog in a big wheel.
Ari doesn't want that anymore than the music industry wanted it, or traditional media wanted it. Ned Ludd and his machine wreckers didn't like change either.
But there is one simple truth that I really believe in, in life or in business: adapt or die.
You want to know where I work Ari? I work on the internet. Welcome aboard.
Update: Incredibly, just as we went live with this, Ari penned a response on his statements to All Things D and Google saying that he wants to work with the tech industry, and doesn't want to rehash SOPA as it was a reflection of Hollywood's "arrogance." Here is part of the statement:
I understand that the onus is not entirely Google's, but let's stop talking at each other and get in a room with all parties to figure this out. To be clear, I don't want to rehash SOPA as we can all agree that was a reflection of Southern California's arrogance, and let's also not pretend that we're working together on this issue because we have Youtube channels together. This is a larger conversation. It's time for Hollywood, our government and Silicon Valley to step up and collectively resolve this problem. Let me know where and when and I'll be there.