Getting ready to see the new Batman movie, The Dark Night Rises? If you’re a Congressional staffer, especially one writing intellectual property legislation, you don’t have to wait in line or even buy tickets. And if you’re a sitting senator writing legislation important to the movie industry, you can even be in the movie.
The Nation has exclusively obtained an invitation provided to Congressional staffers, welcoming them to a VIP screening of the movie on Wednesday, July 18, at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History IMAX theater. Lobbyists from Warner Brothers Studios organized the event, which brought together staffers from both sides of the aisle—including, as we understand it, many staffers directly involved in copyright legislation.
The event was thinly guised as an “educational” get-together to avoid violating the gift-ban rule. “We also hope this discussion will deepen your understanding of the movie industry’s impact on job creation and the national economy,” reads the invitation. A source at the event told The Nation that an international trade spokesman from Time Warner/Warner Brothers gave a short speech before the movie began.
The movie has already attracted political controversy given the horrific tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, in which a gunman entered a theater on Thursday night and killed twelve people and wounded fifty-nine others.
As the country mourns the tragedy, few have given notice that Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) made his second appearance in the Batman series in The Dark Knight Rises.
As I’ve noted in the past, corruption comes in many forms, far beyond the campaign contributions the press likes to dwell upon. In some cases, it’s a discounted mortgage ;to members of Congress; sometimes it’s a free yacht or the promise of a future job. For Leahy, who chairs the powerful Judiciary Committee that controls intellectual property law vital to the movie industry and is known for his “lifelong” Batman obsession, it’s the fulfillment of a childhood fantasy.
The movie and music industry is dead-set on passing new intellectual property and piracy legislation. Their keystone goal, known as SOPA/PIPA, would grant both government and industry vast new powers to censor the Internet, a power grab widely criticized as an assault on the First Amendment.
Leahy and his Congressional staff were on board with the SOPA/PIPA push; he boldly promised in December to lead the coalition to pass this legislation. The bills were only stopped after one of the largest online advocacy drives in modern history.
The Batman giveaways for Congressional staff, which hasn’t been reported until now, is nothing new for the copyright industry. In December, the music lobby sponsored a party hosted by Wiz Khalifa and Snoop Dogg for Congressional staffers at the height of their advocacy effort over SOPA/PIPA.
Under the ethics rules, lobbyists cannot simply give away gifts to Congressional staff. So the Warner Brothers lobbyists allowed staffers to bring one guest—making the event a “widely attended event”—and provided a fifteen minute speech about new Time Warner–related products at the beginning of the movie, so that they could define the event as “educational.” Evidently, the ethics rules are riddled with loopholes.
The conflicts of interests are glaring. Leahy, who collects royalties from his previous Batman cameo, had his own special viewing of the movie last Sunday. Warner Brothers CEO Barry Meyer—the same Barry Meyer who has been called to testify as an expert witness before Leahy in the past—escorted Leahy to the event.
There’s nothing wrong with a senator being involved in entertainment. But it’s unlikely that Leahy was cast in the film because of his acting credentials or because viewers were anxious to see the senior senator from Vermont. Rather, this form of special treatment helps the movie industry gain a seat at the table when legislation is written.
Demand Progress, an advocacy group focused on Internet freedom and civil liberties, has a pretty entertaining petition to drive attention to the issue. It’s called “Holy Conflict of Interest, Batman!”