The Privacy Lawyer: Movies Are Different

The battle over illegal downloading of movies is much clearer than that over illegal downloading of music files.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 16, 2004

3 Min Read

Some may have spotted a quote from me in the press materials distributed by the Motion Picture Association of America in connection with its recent announcement that lawsuits against movie pirates will start soon. Some also may remember that I've taken a strong and consistent stand against any legal loopholes that allowed anyone willing to claim that they were a copyright holder to force your ISP to turn over your real name, address, and telephone number by piercing your IP address.

I understand any confusion. But the legal loopholes have been closed and the privacy of innocent Internet users is no longer at risk. This time the issue is one of legal and responsible technology use. But more than merely the resolution of the IP-privacy issue has caused me to take a public stance in support of the motion-picture industry. Movies are different.

This battle is far more clear-cut. No one who's downloading or otherwise sharing first-run motion pictures, often before their launch in movie theaters, believes that they're acting within the law. Whether we buy a pirated DVD on a corner in Chinatown or download it from the multiple P2P and Fserves in IRC, we know that what we're doing is wrong and against the law.

So, people know they're stealing. They're stealing something they cannot buy, and have never been able to buy legally. They're not merely routing around an obstruction caused by an industry fighting new technological distribution models. In fact, unlike the music industry, the motion picture industry hasn't resisted the sales and licensing of motion pictures online. It's developing new services for the purchase of DVD downloads online and exploring other ways of providing Internet motion picture and video delivery. (The real holdout is file size and transmission speed, as well as available storage space for consumers.) When combined, these go a long way to explaining why movies are different.

But it only explains half of the reason I've provided support to the MPAA.

The other half relates to what it has done, and most important, not done, until now.

The MPAA has waited for years before bringing the first lawsuits. It has developed and delivered awareness campaigns to colleges and universities throughout the United States. It has encouraged educational institutions to create acceptable-use policies outlining the piracy issues and prohibiting piracy using school servers. And while it joined the RIAA in legal attempts to shut down P2P networks and on legal actions to uphold the 512(h) subpoena (the legal loophole I was talking about) to find the identity of a P2P infringer, it never served a 512(h) subpoena. It's been extraordinarily patient.

But it can't afford to be patient much longer. Now it believes (probably correctly) that it has to "up the ante." It thinks that unless enforcement is added to the threats, no one will take it seriously. And most important, it realizes that unless it does something more soon, motion pictures will go the way of the pre-1998 music industry. As more people get broadband access, and as computer storage space and memory continue to get cheaper, movie piracy will increase. As new technologies are developed allowing large files to be compressed for transmission, movie piracy will increase. And until we teach our youth to respect the law and the rights of others and to be good cybercitizens, movie piracy will increase.

There's still time to turn this around. Hopefully lawsuits will remain a small part of the overall scheme of getting everyone back on track. Hopefully we can get people to remember when it wasn't socially acceptable to steal movies. Hopefully we can teach everyone to once again be accountable for his or her actions.

Return to main story, The Privacy Lawyer: P2P Networks: The Other Risks

Parry Aftab is a cyberspace lawyer, specializing in online privacy and security law, and she's also executive director of WiredSafety. She hosts the Web site and blogs regularly at

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