Sony Execs Freaked Out That Its Marketing People Wanted To Use Torrents For Marketing

The decision of whether or not to embrace or fight innovation is such a weird one at times. It leads to such ridiculous choices. It’s no secret that the big movie studios have decided that things like BitTorrent are evil and must be shunned at all costs — even as plenty of successful creators have learned how to embrace the technology in ways that helps them make money in ways that weren’t possible before. But, if you’ve staked your entire corporate position on the idea that BitTorrent technology is pure evil, then you can never, ever even try to embrace it and see if you can actually use it to your advantage.

Witness this bizarre email thread, in which Sony’s top execs completely freak out over the idea that some other Sony folks are considering ways to use torrents for promotional purposes. It started with some Sony folks in Europe, who had the idea of putting up fake torrents of the TV show “Hannibal” that would (at first) include a short portion of the show, and then would tell downloaders to watch the show on TV. But Sony bosses in LA put the kibosh on this plan:

Personally, I love this and this it is a great promotion – unfortunately, however, the studio position is that we absolutely cannot post content (even promos) on torrent sites. The studio spends millions of dollars fighting piracy and it doesn’t send a good message if we then start using those same pirate sites to promote our shows.

Well, first of all, it’s not a “great promotion” because people have tried putting up similar fake torrents for ages, and it tends to just piss people off. There’s a reason they’re downloading it rather than watching it on TV and telling them to just watch it on TV probably doesn’t help anyone. It just pisses them off. But let’s leave that aside for a minute.

The folks on the TV side at Sony tried again. They thought, instead of a “promotion” for the TV, how about just a “public service announcement” (PSA) about how unauthorized downloads are bad. This is also a pretty dumb idea that has been tried for over a decade and generally just leads to mockery. So it likely wouldn’t be that effective, but Sony top execs got even more worried that even using torrents for PSAs would somehow legitimize BitTorrent, and Sony cannot allow that to happen.

I called Paula and restated that this is simply a long road to “no” because it so severely undercuts our efforts not only in CE, but all we have accomplished elsewhere (and that could be compromised by making the distinction between bad & good sites more gray)… Forget about a site blocking strategy if we start putting legitimate PSAs or promos on sites we’ve flagged to governments as having no legitimate purpose other than theft… PSAs being for public good, etc…

Elsewhere in the email thread, Sony Pictures’ top lawyer Aimee Wolfson notes that “this is a highly problematic idea”:

This is a highly problematic idea. Even with a PSA message, it will be easy for the pirate sites to cite it as (a) lawful activity on their site, and (b) an attempt to promote the show. (Note that the attached script is definitely promotional, and responds to the pirate viewer’s activity with a knowing and conspiratorial “wink” – not the message we would want to send.)

Meanwhile, the Sony TV and marketing people keep pushing for this idea, with Sony TV boss Steve Mosko saying “this is really important to me” and others recognizing that this is a “clever” idea, considering that the European team has “no budget.”

In some ways, this is so incredibly shortsighted. Here Sony is so committed to the idea that torrents can’t be shown to have any legal, non-infringing uses (even though there are plenty), that it won’t even allow its own staff to experiment with ways to use the new technology to their own advantage. But just the admission in the email alone shows that Sony’s top execs know damn well that there are legitimate, non-infringing, uses for BitTorrent, and they’re deliberately trying not to use them just to make BitTorrent look much worse than it is.

Sony’s focus is so blinded by “Piracy bad! Piracy bad!” that it can’t even consider “Hey, this technology might be helpful.” Once again, I’m reminded of how Jack Valenti declared in 1982 that “the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” Except, at least back then Hollywood wasn’t so stupid as to not embrace the VCR. Just four years after Valenti claimed that the VCR would kill the American film industry, in 1986, VCR revenue for the movie industry surpassed box office revenue. The Hollywood of the 1980s fought technology, but at least it learned how to use it to its own advantage. Apparently the Hollywood of today is so committed to hating on technology that it will give up the new markets enabled by it.

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