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Is Hollywood Overreacting to the Piracy Threat?
 

With the current battle over copyright infringement heating up, two key questions become readily apparent.  One: has Hollywood gone too far in protecting its interests from bootleggers?  Two: are movie studios combating infringers in the “right” way?

     Fact: the music industry has seen its album unit sales shrink steadily each year as a result of unauthorized downloading, from 60 million in 2000 to just 34 million in ’02.  With this in mind, the movie industry’s paranoia about piracy is understandable (I’ve been among those sounding the alarm), particularly since the industry already loses an estimated $3 billion a year to pirates.  Hollywood has made a number of strikes against potential bootleggers, some of them laudable and many of them not, but which overall add up to a none-too-attractive theorem: overkill.  Thus, in response to the question of whether Hollywood has gone too far in protecting its interests, the answer, from my vantage point, is a resounding Yes.

     You’ve doubtless seen the spots shown in movie theaters with below-the-line technicians lecturing us on the evils of piracy.  That’s okay, I guess.  An even better idea is the simultaneous release of movies around the world, as Warners just did with THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, thus discouraging the bootlegging that tends to run rampant in the traditional staggered release system.  The window between theatrical and home video releases has also shrunk appreciatively in response to the piracy issue, to as little as three months between the time a movie hits theaters to when it shows up on DVD.  No complaints there. 

     Far less enchanting are the obnoxious red dots that now appear periodically in movie prints, known as “Cap Code”...or, more appropriately, “Crap Code.”  The intent is to mark movies in such a way that the code will be visible on even the poorest quality bootlegs, and thus traceable back to the source.  Sounds like an effective system, though NOT for those of us who pay $10.00 to view these marked up film prints!  I’m also not too thrilled with the MPAA’s new “What’s the Diff?” school program indoctrinating students on the evils of bootlegging.  This program includes an essay contest offering 750 prizes to students whose entries best reflect the MPAA’s views on piracy.  According to one of the contest coordinators, “We show them all sides of the story and guide them to making up their own minds.”  Sure.  And what if after considering “all sides of the story” children decide bootlegging isn’t such a bad thing after all?  Somehow I don’t think that decision would go down too well with the program’s backers!

     As if that weren’t enough, there’s also the MPAA’s much-contested ban on DVD screeners, the subject of a recent lawsuit filed against the MPAA by over a dozen independent film companies.  Screeners, for those who don’t know, are copies of in-release movies sent out to members of the Motion Picture Academy and other organizations for year-end awards.  Many have argued that their restriction was meant to impact independent companies who rely on high profile award nominations to stay in business.  In the absence of screeners, the argument goes, Academy members will only be able to see films in theaters, meaning they’ll probably catch big studio films, as those are easier to get to than the others and have much greater advertising budgets.  A persuasive argument, but I believe the ban is in large part just another example of Hollywood overreacting to the piracy issue.

     Consider: the most damaging movie piracy thus far has NOT been due to screener copies, but bootlegs courtesy of industry insiders.  This brings us to my second question: is Hollywood combating copyright infringers in the right way?  The answer is a flat No.

     The authors of the recent AT&T Research Labs report on movie piracy state “Consumer DVD copying currently represents a relatively minor factor compared with insider leaks.”  The study further estimates that a full 77 percent of bootlegs originate within the industry.  Example: the HULK workprint that was infamously released over the Internet weeks in advance of that film’s theatrical release originated from a Manhattan advertising firm promoting the movie.

     Yet this hasn’t stopped Hollywood from pressuring congress into enacting legislation targeting the general public, which has resulted in an abomination called the Artists’ Rights and Theft Prevention Act (ART Act), a bipartisan bill sponsored by senators Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas).  This act would make it a felony to bring a camcorder into a movie theater and place anyone in prison for up to three years for possessing a single bootlegged movie on his/her shared folders.  Under this measure, such punishments “would not require that any copyright infringement actually take place.”

    I don’t have much sympathy for people who videotape movies in theaters or those who shell out for the results (is waiting out the theatrical-to-DVD window really that difficult?), and I certainly don’t begrudge copyright holders from wanting to protect their interests.  But regarding the above bill: GIVE ME A BREAK!!  I find the idea of moviemakers turning on their audiences a mite queasy, and the draconian excesses of the ART Act downright nauseating (the “Artist’s Rights” is a joke, as this bill is solely concerned with the interests of those who run the movie and TV studios).  Copyright violation is a problem, to be sure, but we don’t need to further trample our constitutional rights in order to fight it.

    Luckily the ART Act isn’t a law yet.  Should it pass, though, we can expect even more repressive measures in the coming years, as copyright holders strive to further straightjacket their consumers while ignoring the root cause of the piracy problem (it seems the nightmarish future world of K.W. Jeter’s 1998 novel NOIR, where bootleggers are dealt with by having their bodies chopped up and their vital parts used to power copyright holders’ household appliances, isn’t that far off!). 

     I fear Hollywood’s attempts at combating piracy will only further alienate a clientele that’s estranged enough as it is.  Customer complaints have become increasingly common at movie theaters exhibiting Crap Coded films, and I haven’t detected much encouragement for the ART Act—just the opposite, in fact.  Even the pre-movie spots have inspired a backlash--see Jon Derevlany’s November 11 LA TIMES piece pointing out the absurdity of movie techs worrying about losing their livelihoods to piracy when studio execs are only too willing to sacrifice their jobs in favor of cheaper overseas labor.  The “What’s The Diff?” school program has met with even less enthusiasm; regarding the program, NEA spokesperson Melinda Anderson says: “We have concerns about students being a captive audience for any kind of corporate propaganda.”  Me too!

     Movie piracy is a threat, without question, but I don’t believe inflaming consumers will stop it.  Indeed, if Hollywood continues on its present course, I think the problem will only grow steadily worse.

     For more info on this issue I recommend the following links: http://www.opendvd.org, http://phil.codeallday.com/?a=files (containing a “discussion draft” of the ART Act) and http://www.pdmcdan.com/docs/drm03.pdf (which contains the full text of the AT&T Labs report quoted above).  You can also check out the MPAA sponsored website presenting their view, but the URL can be found on movie screens throughout the country.  Just to keep things balanced, however, I’ll disclose it anyway: http://www.respect-copyrights.org.

 

--11/28/03
 


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