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After Uproar Over Anti-Piracy Bill, a Movie Studio Courts Law Professors

Just weeks after a Web-fueled backlash stopped a pair of controversial anti-piracy bills from advancing in Congress, one movie studio is trying to cool the debate by courting law professors and asking them to hold conversations about how to prevent copyright infringement.

In a letter sent to dozens of law professors last week, Paramount Pictures’ vice president of worldwide content protection and outreach, Alfred C. Perry, wrote that the company was “humbled” by the strong public opposition to the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, two bills that sparked worldwide protests in mid-January. The backlash surprised the company, the letter states, and Mr. Perry asked professors to consider inviting representatives for campus discussions of intellectual-property laws. The goal would be to “exchange ideas about content theft, its challenges, and possible ways to address it,” the letter reads.

The company’s message strikes a gentler tone than recent comments by Philippe Dauman, the chief executive of Viacom, Paramount’s parent company. He recently suggested in an interview that the strong public opposition to the Senate’s bill was driven by a “mob mentality” and “unfortunate rhetoric.”

Though Paramount’s letter attempts to foster a dialogue with law students, some believe the company is interested in broadcasting only its own views. Eric Goldman, an associate professor of law at Santa Clara University, doubted that Paramount was humbled by the uproar that spurred lawmakers to walk away from the two bills. Though Mr. Goldman did not receive the letter personally, he posted a copy online on Monday. He has been working with colleagues via e-mail to reverse-engineer the recipients list, which he said appears confined to professors at top-ranked law schools.

“I don’t understand why, if they truly wanted to engage consumers, they would approach law professors, especially those at the most elite schools,” Mr. Goldman wrote in an e-mail interview. “There are at least a half-dozen ways that Paramount could get better marketplace feedback than eliciting the perspectives of law students, which reinforces why I think they intended to do more talking than listening.”

Mr. Goldman suggested that the kind of event Paramount proposed would not likely convince audience members to change their positions, and that it would instead allow them to give in to their already-held beliefs.

Rodney J. Petersen, senior government relations officer at Educause, was also puzzled by Paramount’s decision to approach professors instead of campus-technology officers. He said his organization was disappointed to learn secondhand of the letter’s distribution, because Educause officials have tried to conduct productive talks with the entertainment industry in the past. Mr. Petersen questioned Paramount’s use of the term “content theft,” language he said adds fuel to an already emotionally charged debate. He added that Paramount’s letter is insensitive to the many legal uses of content that occur at universities every day and is “unlikely to narrow the divide” between the opposing sides of the intellectual-property debate.

A Paramount source with knowledge of the effort who refused to be named claimed the outreach included just two dozen letters, and was targeted at law professors because “these professors and students dissect and analyze the law on a daily basis, and their academic perspectives would be incredibly valuable.” The source said it was conducted as part of a “learning process” that seeks common ground.

Despite being “deeply suspicious” of Paramount’s avowed humility when she received her copy of the letter, Jessica Litman, a professor of law at the University of Michigan, said she invited Mr. Perry to speak to her copyright law class in March.

“I like my students to hear from people who disagree with me,” she said. “I was pretty confident that he would be one such, and I thought my students are adults—and I’m not worried they’re going to be snowed by Paramount’s pitch, so wouldn’t it be interesting to hear what Paramount has to say?”

[Creative Commons licensed Flickr photo by Mike Licht]

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