Kim Dotcom, the cartoonish German tech genius who heads up the besieged Megaupload, wanted to become a Steve Jobs-like figure, according to a Hollywood Reporter cover story published yesterday. On reading that, my first instinct was to scoff. But then I thought, “Why not?”
Dotcom’s friends and associates say the mogul saw himself as a legitimate businessman who hoped to create a distribution platform that would pay artists more than what they would get if they sold their wares through Apple. Others compared Dotcom to YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, who, like Dotcom, benefited from hosting pirated content but had ostensibly legitimate business aims.
The comparison might be extended to Drew Houston, the founder of DropBox, which provides a file-sharing service that performs the same functions as Megaupload, except without the content-search that made it easier for Megaupload users to find and share films and music.
But for some reason, Houston has never been subjected to an early morning police raid, and he hasn’t had his assets seized, or his bank accounts frozen. He hasn’t been arrested, he doesn’t face extradition from his place of residence, and he is isn’t the potential defendant in a trial that could result in him going to jail for 50 years. Instead, Dropbox has been lauded as Y Combinator’s most successful investment, and Business Week has called the 29-year-old Houston the best young tech entrepreneur.
So what’s the difference between Houston and Dotcom? Well, there are a few.
Dotcom’s biggest mistake, however, was letting his ego get the better of him. What he defends as the fun-loving side of his personality manifested itself in such an ostentatious fashion that he must have been a magnet for US federal authorities looking to make a point on behalf of Hollywood. Ridiculous parties, suitcases full of cash, an outrageous mansion, and a car with the licence plate “Guilty.” He was, some would argue, asking for it.
Just like party boy Sean Parker, Dotcom made an easy scapegoat for a media industry that hadn’t figured out how to effectively distribute its content to users who most likely would have been happy to pay for the convenience of digital delivery.
If Dotcom had lived in a modest house and kept his parties private and quiet; if he had been backed by Silicon Valley VCs and didn’t wave guns around in front of fast cars; if he lived in Silicon Valley instead of Auckland, New Zealand; if he didn’t produce one of history’s most cringeworthy promotional songs, then… Well, then he would have been Drew Houston – with a few added pounds.
As the Hollywood Reporter’s story makes clear, parsing the difference between Dotcom and Houston is not a trivial matter. If Dotcom goes down, everything from Dropbox to Pinterest becomes fair game. Stanford Law School’s Anthony Falzone told the magazine that by extending the boundaries of US copyright law beyond civil penalties and into the criminal realm, the Dotcom case could have a stifling effect on innovation. “It creates tremendous risk if your platform is used for the wrong reasons,” he said.
If there’s a lesson in here for entrepreneurs operating in the shared-media space, it’s that it pays to keep a low profile – or at least not to crow too loudly. The business community outside of Hollywood and the recording industry has shown a willingness to not only embrace innovators like DropBox and Pinterest, but also laud them.
Probably to his detriment, Dotcom still hasn’t learned this lesson. His latest media effort is a 12-minute car-racing film starring Formula 1 champion Kimi Raikkonen. You can check it out on YouTube, where it lives alongside plenty of content of less legal provenance.