Rick Cotton Rallies Broad Anti-Piracy Base

NBCU's general counsel fights content theft online, but he's also tech's public enemy No. 1

When it comes to fighting digital theft on the Web, Rick Cotton is a true crusader.

Since 2004, when he began his battle to protect the entertainment industry’s copyrights, Cotton, NBCU’s executive vice president and general counsel, has managed to rally an eclectic cast of strange bedfellows including labor leaders and titans of business. In total, Cotton, who also serves as chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Coalition Against Counterfeiting and Piracy, has lined up some 700 companies to support legislation that would tighten enforcement.

“This is a man I once would not get in the elevator with,” says entertainment labor leader Scott Harbinson. “The fact that our sides have thrown in together tells you how seriously we view the threat.”

That threat, which lawmakers estimate costs businesses $100 billion a year, has also led to an unlikely bipartisan coalition of congressional leaders, led by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, each of whom chairs his respective chamber’s Judiciary Committee. Both have held hearings and are trying to pass new laws on the issue. Last week, Leahy reintroduced a new version of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act, now named the Protect IP Act. Smith intends to follow suit in the coming weeks with a House version of the Protect IP Act.

Cotton, who is based in New York, has logged thousands of miles on the Acela and shuttle, and scuffed shoe leather in the halls of Congress to make sure the issue of piracy stays on legislators’ minds.

His journey began with a wake-up call in December 2005, when a Saturday Night Live skit, “Lazy Sunday,” went viral on YouTube, pulling in 7 million views. “It was a series of incidents like that which really brought the scale of Internet threat front and center,” Cotton says. On the business side, it was a stark lesson for NBC, which three years later joined with Fox to launch Hulu.

While NBC’s digital whiz kids worked on establishing a digital strategy, Cotton worked the copyright side.

“I began having two parallel sets of discussions, one across the business community with the Chamber of Commerce and several business sectors, and the other with labor unions who began to recognize the job threat,” Cotton says.

By 2008, Cotton was instrumental in rallying support for passage of the Pro-IP Act—not to be confused with Leahy’s Protect IP Act—which set up a White House-level copyright cop to coordinate the administration’s efforts.

Cotton may be a knight in shining armor for the content community, but he’s a dark lord to the technology industry, which thinks the bills Cotton is pushing go too far.

“The enemy of new technology has always been the existing content community,” says Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association. “Commercial piracy is wrong, but it doesn’t mean you choke innovation. As proposed, [these bills] give too much control to business to shut down websites. It’s like using a nuclear warhead instead of a flyswatter.”