In the lead up to the 2013 Australian election, Village Roadshow made a couple of hefty political donations. Now there's nothing too weird about this as politics runs on corporate donations—just ask Frank Underwood—but usually donors pick sides. But in Village Roadshow's case they made large contributions to both major parties at the same time, and did so while lobbying hard for changes to Internet piracy and copyright laws. Now you can't blame them for hedging their bets, but it does raise concerns about the role of money in government decision-making.
Looking at the figures, the company which has interests in cinema, theme parks, and film production and distribution, donated $329,919 to the Liberal Party, and $227,500 to Labor last financial year. This was a huge increase from their earlier contributions. All up, the company has now donated nearly $4.5 million to Australian political parties since 1998, or what Dr Matthew Rimme— an expert in online piracy and intellectual property laws—calls "a significant amount of money."
"We have to think about the dangers of conflicts of interest arising over their being political donations and the very direct pushes for reforms to copyright laws," he told VICE. "There's so much money at stake, so we want to guard against any potential for distortion or corruption of the political system."
Village Roadshow has been urging the government for several years to increase protection in copyright laws and implement more severe punishment for online pirates. The company made a very controversial submission to the federal government's online copyright discussion, where they compared online piracy to terrorism and pedophilia. "The problem is urgent as piracy is spreading like a highly infectious disease and as bad habits become entrenched, they become harder to eradicate," the submission read. "Just as there is no place on the Internet for terrorism or pedophilia, there should be no place for theft that will impact the livelihoods of the 900,000 people whose security is protected by legitimate copyright."
Australia has one of the highest online piracy rates in the world, and last year saw increased calls for stringent laws surrounding the issue. At the end of 2014 Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis announced reforms that would allow copyright holders, including Village Roadshow, to seek court orders that force Internet service providers to block copyright infringing websites, such as Pirate Bay. Turnbull and Brandis also warned Internet providers to agree on a piracy code soon or they would step in.
So how much of this is to do with donations? "In some ways there are larger global trends at play, in terms of what's going on in copyright law and political donations," said Dr Rimmer, referring to the widespread practice in the US where it has become a major problem. "There are massive distortions in relation to copyright law, with heavy lobbying and political donations having an impact."
While the exact amount of influence donations have had on policy is hard to quantify, it's clear that this kind of thing is rampant. But be that as it may, how do we feel about Village Roadshow backing both sides of the political divide? And how did they decide which of the parties got the larger amount? "It looks like they took out insurance," Dr Rimmer says, and according to him, it's not a good look.
"It's really important that Australian copyright law is crafted to reflect the wide range of stakeholders and not just be focused upon the interests of a company that makes Mad Max and the Lego Movie."
Follow Denham on Twitter: @denhamsadler