Content Cafe


Industry Voices: James Dickinson, Screenrights

by Content Café, 17 November 2021

Each month we hear from industry insiders in Australia and abroad to get their take on content piracy. Is content protection improving? How do we stop piracy? How does Australia compare to the rest of the world? These are some of the questions we'll be exploring with leaders across the content industry.

James Dickinson, Chief Executive of Screenrights

James Dickinson joined the licensing department of Screenrights in 1997 and became Head of Licensing soon afterwards. During the next 20 years he oversaw a 200% increase in Screenrights’ annual licensing revenue, from $13 million to over $40 million, before becoming Acting Chief Executive in 2017. He was appointed Screenrights Chief Executive in 2019.

Who are you and what is your role in the creative industry eco-system? 

I’m Chief Executive of Screenrights. Screenrights is a non-profit organisation that provides an important income stream for rightsholders in screen content, whilst also facilitating the usage of that content by educators, the government, and pay television retransmitters through our licences.  

Essentially, if a program has been broadcast, these secondary users are entitled to make use of that program under the Copyright Act. Screenrights makes sure that the creators are fairly remunerated for that usage. We have over 4,800 members around the world including producers, writers, directors, distributors, broadcasters, studios, music rights holders, artists, and others! 

We’re also expanding into other services for the screen industry, trying to take some of the administrative burden off the plates of creative practitioners through Disbursements and Residuals management and reporting, and looking into alternative collective licensing solutions. We want to find the things that are causing headaches and friction in the industry and focus our strengths as an organisation in data and systems on alleviating some of those pains. 

Does piracy affect your business or that of your stakeholders?  How? 

Piracy was actually core to the appointment of Screenrights in our original capacity. Screenrights licences were created so that teachers were no longer pirating when they copied television shows for class. The provision was created under the Copyright Act.  

It was an innovative solution which ensured the education system could still use the content, but also that the copyright owners were fairly compensated. Piracy does affect our business and our stakeholders.  

We see our role as being to help ensure there are legal ways to access content so that piracy can never have an excuse.  If we can build more ways for end users to access content legally, while paying those who make that content, it’s better for everyone involved. 

Educators have relied on Screenrights licensed content more than ever before during the pandemic with remote learning requirements, and we saw records of usage via the resource centres (licensed video-on-demand services for educational institutions) increase exponentially over the last couple of financial years. It’s been great to see our members’ content provide such educational support. Certainly, the secondary royalties that come from this are a key income stream for many content creators, and diversifying income allows for more excellent programs to be made. 

What do you think is the most significant impact of piracy on the creative industry? 

I think people don’t realise how fragile the structures are that create local screen content. And because they are fragile, they are most at risk from piracy. Many people in our creative fields are already working as much from passion as for financial gain.  

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that our screen industries provide an incredibly valuable function in society. Who didn’t turn to screen content to get themselves through lockdown?  

Australia has a great international reputation in our film and television capabilities. Imagine if all of that content were valued properly, how we could further nurture our production industries and support creative careers? Piracy is one of a few ways in which creative industries are undervalued. But it’s one that we can avoid on a personal level, so it’s one that everyone can do something about. 

What is the biggest challenge in the fight against piracy?  

I think it’s getting people to see that their actions are hurting the people who are creating the content that they love. Casual pirates see it as a victimless crime or think that the victim is some remote Hollywood mogul who they don’t care about. But in fact, the victims are all the people that work as a huge collective to create those works. They are not rich, they are not remote, and they are impacted by piracy.  

How do you think Australia is measuring up in tackling piracy? 

Probably other people are better placed to answer that question more generally. But I suppose from Screenrights’ perspective, we have a unique view, which might be useful. As I said, the original educational licences were created in our copyright law in response to piracy.

Not to legitimise piracy but recognising that in some circumstances, where there is an important societal need for access to content (such as for education), then we can create an exception from copyright but still ensure that the creators get a fair fee. That was a unique Australian solution to a piracy problem at that time, and it has worked extraordinarily well.

Recently, those solutions have been under attack from interest groups seeking to undermine copyright more generally. I think instead we should be thinking, are there other ways we can apply this approach? 

What are you watching and recommending to friends at the moment? 

Total Control, Stateless, Mystery Road and The Newsreader are a few more recent highlights. 

What excites you about the future of your industry sector? 

As I mentioned earlier, Screenrights saw the use of our Australian Educational Licence explode over the pandemic. Our raw usage records, which we receive from the resource centres in order to allocate royalty payments, increased from 5 million in 2018/19 to over 17.7 million in 2020/21.  

It was fantastic that our members’ content could provide such a useful service to the sector in such a difficult time, and with new initiatives such as the ABC Education platform making use of the licence, we’re excited to see screen content being used in ever more innovative ways to support learning. 

If we can continue to appreciate the importance of telling our own diverse Australian stories and reflect that in the ways that we support our screen industry –as individuals and on a government level – there’s a lot more to come from our fantastic creators.  

Screenrights is proud to play our part in supporting this vital industry, and we can’t wait to see what’s next. 

Before you go, check out last month’s interviews with Annabelle Herd, CEO of ARIA and PPCA and Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang, professors at Carnegie Mellon University and co-directors of CMU’s Initiative for Digital Entertainment Analytics.