Netflix’s Alliance with the MPAA Signals a Shift in Platform Priorities

Earlier this week, it was announced that Netflix would be joining the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) as the film studio coalition’s first streaming platform member. It’s also been reported—albeit with less fanfare—that Netflix’s entrance into the MPAA will coincide with its exit from the Internet Association (IA), which is a trade group representing internet platforms and tech companies such as Google, Amazon, eBay, and Facebook. It’s big news for an industry that is steadily moving towards streaming models, and it’s a move that markedly captures a shift in priorities among tech platforms and content distributors as they transition into the creation of original works.

Though most associate the MPAA with its film rating system and recognize its logo from the beginning of movie trailers, the coalition’s nearly century-old mission is to advocate on behalf of the artists, creators, and studios producing American film and television and to foster a vibrant creative ecosystem. The MPAA’s early work was centered on public relations and anti-censorship efforts, but as the development of home-video technology and the internet changed the way we watch movies and TV over the past four decades, a main focus of the organization has been anti-piracy efforts and the enforcement of intellectual property rights. Netflix now joins Paramount, Warner Bros., Sony Pictures, Disney, and Universal in their effort to promote effective copyright policy and support the industries that drive the creative economy.

What makes this partnership noteworthy is that it is the result of Netflix’s evolution from a DVDs-by-mail rental service to a streaming disruptor to a creator of acclaimed original content. Before it was producing award-winning shows and movies, Netflix relied exclusively on licensing agreements to stream the creative works of other studios, most of whom are long-standing MPAA members. Though its service doesn’t include user generated content (UGC), Netflix’s status as one of the most popular internet platforms saw it align itself in the past with companies and organizations whose business models are built on UGC and who continually advocate for broad limitations on intermediary liability for copyright infringement.

One of these groups is the Internet Association, whose mission statement is “to foster innovation, promote economic growth, and empower people through the free and open internet.” While it sounds like a worthy mission, preserving a “free and open internet” has become code for resisting any changes to the 20-year-old DMCA provisions that broadly shield internet intermediaries from liability for copyright infringement. Rather than work to address evolving issues of online accountability, the IA and similar organizations claiming to support an open internet choose to cling to an outdated system that has frustrated creators and copyright owners for years. As Neil Turkewitz observed in response to an IA policy paper sent to the Trump administration in 2016:

Rather than delineating an agenda aimed at improving policies to promote productivity, economic development and social cohesion throughout the economy, the document is overly focused on preserving certain regulations adopted at the dawn of the Internet age (when the internet was capitalized). Even more disappointing given the IA member companies’ central role in our contemporary lives, the document evinces no consideration of how Internet platforms themselves should strive to balance rights and responsibilities in new ways that promote meaningful internet freedom.

And so perhaps it was this focus on the past that led a pioneering platform like Netflix to decide it was time to part ways with IA. By leaving the IA and joining the MPAA, Netflix now makes clear that it is ready to work with its fellow industry stakeholders to develop and enforce balanced copyright policies that respect the contributions of creators and the institutions that help creators commercialize their works. Netflix’s involvement in these efforts is a welcome addition, and it comes at a time when streaming has emerged as the new face of piracy.

As the lines between platforms and creators of original content continue to blur—think Amazon Prime, YouTube Red, and Spotify’s investment in original music—a newfound recognition of the inadequacies of the DMCA might finally lead to sensible updates to copyright law. Hopefully others will follow Netflix’s lead and join efforts to ensure the proliferation (and protection) of creative content.


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