The head of digital policy for Sony Pictures has warned that the movie industry faces the same prospect of piracy as that already seen by the music industry and has advocated radical new approaches to digital rights and release windows.

Mitch Singer, head of the digital policy group at Sony Pictures Entertainment, was addressing a group of interactive television experts in Hollywood on the rapid pace of change in digital media distribution.

Referring to a sense of déjà vu, he drew a series of persuasive parallels between the situation of the music industry in 1999 and that of the movie industry today.

Audio CD penetration in the United States then was similar to video DVD penetration now, with sales of packaged product reaching saturation in both cases. CD writers were becoming standard in new personal computers then, just as DVD writers are becoming standard today.

“If we are not where the music industry was in 1999 I would be exceedingly surprised, and yet the mentality of most of the motion picture studios is exactly the same,” he said. “The parallels are considerable.” He compared the music industry to the “canary in the coal mine”, warning that the movie industry was “right behind them in every way.”

“Quite frankly I’m ashamed to say that most of the time we view this as a threat, in which case we can fight it and try to stop it, but you can’t stop technology,” he observed quietly. “The music industry learned the hard way.”

Rather than seeing disruptive technology as a threat, it should be seen as an opportunity for developing new business and new distribution models, he suggested.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re going to look back at this time and we’re going to see the internet was the most important tool for the distribution of content to the home. It’s not going to be broadcast, it’s going to be the internet, and we’re going to end up find that peer-to-peer is the technology used to deliver content into the home.”

While acknowledging the difficulties involved in digital rights management, particularly with respect to incompatibilities between different systems, he suggested that it should be possible to make copies of legally acquired content.

He said that consumers should be able to buy a DVD and copy it onto their hard drive. “Shame on us. That is something we should have developed a long time ago,” he said, suggesting that Sony Pictures was looking to address this.

The Sony Executive also suggested that the industry might need to rethink its policy of maintaining phased release windows for different forms of distribution. “I made a proposal to senior management saying that we need to move to all media release at the same time as theatrical, and I was almost thrown out of the building,” he remarked.

“The industry overall is now starting to rethink all of this,” he observed, while warning “Until we start changing the way we think about our media, piracy will continue to progress.”