Creator Spotlight with Ruth Vitale, CEO of CreativeFuture

Ruth Vitale

This week we’d like to introduce you to the CEO of CreativeFuture, Ruth Vitale.

1. Please share some information about CreativeFuture and your role as CEO with the organization.

CreativeFuture is dedicated to speaking up about both the cultural and economic value of creativity, the importance of copyright in protecting creativity, and the massive harm caused by the global theft, facilitated by the internet, of creative works. We are a nonprofit coalition of more than 550 companies and organizations and over 260,000 creative individuals encompassing film, television, music, photography, software, and book publishing.

Eight years ago, I stepped away from a three-decades-long career as a film executive to lead this organization – because I came to the realization that piracy in the age of the internet posed a significant threat to the creative industries, and we all had to work together to do something about it. My job involves providing a voice for the creative community on Capitol Hill, which entails both talking with policymakers myself and connecting them with creatives who can speak about their experiences with piracy. I also work closely with members of our creative communities (like the Copyright Alliance!) to keep finding ways to promote the value of creativity, expand digital access to legitimate content, and protect the fundamental right of creatives to determine how their works are seen, heard, and distributed.

And I oversee our communications output, including our substantial social media presence. We work with news outlets to publish op-eds by our members on our core issues. We produce the #StandCreative series of articles and videos highlighting the lives and careers of creatives. We publish weekly blog content on all manner of topics involving copyright and creativity. We also have a robust social media and newsletter presence and activate our followers to express their support. It all definitely has a cumulative impact, helping to raise awareness of piracy and shape policy to better protect creative livelihoods.

2. What is your (and your organization’s) interest in copyright law? How does your organization, team and members rely on copyright law to support their livelihoods?

At the most basic level, piracy involves the theft of copyrighted works, which harms all of our members no matter how they pursue their creative livelihoods.

We are heavily invested in educating both creatives and Capitol Hill on the impact of digital piracy, and the importance of creative contributions to American life. And copyright law is the engine that drives all of it.

4. Have you experienced copyright infringement and, if so, how has it affected you/your organization and members?

As a longtime distributor of indie films, I was certainly no stranger to copyright infringement. That said, when I first started in the business, the scale of infringement was significantly less than it is now. Individual pirated VHS tapes or DVDs can erode a movie’s bottom line, but at nowhere near the volume of streaming technology, which empowers staggering levels of theft. It’s never been easier to steal movies – put them up on a legitimate-looking streaming platform and make thousands of films and TV shows instantly available to anyone in the world with an internet connection. Piracy has always existed, but today it is an absolute scourge. It costs the U.S. economy at least $29.2 billion and 230,000 jobs every year. There is no sugarcoating it – for the 5.5 million Americans who work in the creative industries, this poses nothing less than an existential threat to their livelihoods.

5. If there was one thing that you wished the public understood about copyright, what would it be?

Simply that copyright is both a vital component of the vibrant culture that touches all our lives and a significant economic driver of the U.S. economy. For the millions of people who work in creative industries, it’s everything. It’s the engine that ensures they get paid fairly for the work they create, which in turn affects everyone who creates and everyone who consumes – because without copyright, creatives would have far less incentive to weave the stories that we all watch, read, listen to, play, and so on.

Do you love to be moved and exhilarated by our country’s incredibly rich tapestry of entertaining content? Then you must also love copyright because that tapestry wouldn’t exist without it. It’s as simple as that.

6. What is your organization’s biggest copyright-related challenge?

One of the biggest challenges is the so-called “liability shield” that allows internet platforms like Google and Facebook to avoid any obligation to develop systemic solutions to the overwhelming volume of piracy on their platforms.

For instance, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a law that requires websites to remove infringing content when notified by the copyright owner – as long as the platforms do the removal in a timely fashion, they are not liable for the harm.

That sounds reasonable in theory, right? The problem is that when the DMCA was passed, in 1998, internet usage levels were a bare fraction of what they are today, bandwidth was limited, networks were slow, file sizes were huge, and no one could have contemplated the mammoth need for enforcement resources that today’s internet requires.

Two decades later, all of that has changed by orders of magnitude. The creative community now sends over 900 million takedown notices every year to Google alone for copyright violations. Google recently processed its 5 billionth takedown request from copyright holders. Many internet companies, both legitimate and illegitimate, have built their businesses around mass infringement – turning a blind eye to the “repeat infringers” and widespread piracy that they rely upon to drive traffic to their platforms. They treat notice-and-takedown as an annoying but acceptable “cost of doing business.”

To be fair, the intention of Congress when it drafted the DMCA was good – they wanted to encourage the platforms to voluntarily take proactive measures against copyright infringement. Unfortunately, that hasn’t really happened – they simply do the bare minimum required to stay within the law. And now, having grown into absolute behemoths, the piracy problem has only gotten worse.

7. If there was one aspect of copyright law that you could change, what would that be and how would you change it?

What I would like to see does not necessarily require changing the law. I would like to see the major internet platforms take proactive steps – rather than the merely reactive steps stipulated by the DMCA – to limit piracy. This could start with simply making their copyright protection tools more widely available. Facebook has Rights Manager and YouTube has a whole suite of such tools, including Content Verification Program and Content ID. These offerings are not without their flaws, but overall, they are lightyears better than the default tool they offer – a cumbersome webform that must be filled out each and every time your copyrighted work gets uploaded without your permission.

In an era where Google alone receives around 75 million takedown notices per month, it’s a wildly inefficient system – and extremely frustrating because YouTube and Facebook have tools already built to help improve it. But right now, they make it extremely difficult to qualify for their tools, and most creatives are stuck wasting precious time and resources on filling out all those millions (nay, billions) of webforms.

Ideally, internet platforms would expand access to their tools voluntarily, as the DMCA intended. However, they have little, if any, legal or financial incentive to make it easier for creatives to fight infringement on their platforms. If we cannot get them to do it on their own, we may need to ask Congress to tweak copyright law to force their hands, requiring that internet platforms give all rightsholders sufficient content protection tools to ease the overwhelming burden of copyright enforcement in the digital age.

8. What is the best piece of advice that you would give to artists/creators about copyright and how to protect themselves and their work? 

There is no way around it – protecting your creative works in the digital age is an enormous challenge. I would say the best thing an artist/creator can do is to arm themselves with information. Know your rights, know what constitutes a fair use and what does not, and familiarize yourself with available copyright protection tools. If you want to be a successful creative in this day and age, you have to know how to defend yourself. It is unfortunate because it takes a lot of effort and time – time you could be spending on your creative masterpieces – but that’s the reality we live in.

The good news is that there are plenty of resources to help you. The Copyright Alliance is obviously one of them, and so are we! I encourage you to join us. Become part of our grassroots army. We are fighting for you, after all, and together, we are stronger. #StandCreative

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