For your consideration: Screeners on eBay

Greetings, criminals.

“Intellectual property” might sound like a generous description of “The Matrix Reloaded,” HBO’s now-defunct “The Mind of the Married Man” or the latest Kelly Clarkson CD, but just because they weren’t especially good doesn’t give you the right to steal them.

Nevertheless, the U.S. is fast becoming a nation of casual thieves — a fact underscored by the latest wrinkle in the war on piracy, with major studios reconsidering the practice of sending out Academy Award screeners for fear of abetting the freebooters.

In a luncheon address last year, News Corp. president Peter Chernin conceded he might bore everyone in the room, then proceeded to issue a warning that Hollywood could be “out of business” if it doesn’t tackle protection of digital copyrights. He was right on both counts.

The irony is that the theft sweeping across the entertainment spectrum has been hastened not only by technology but also the image problems of companies like News Corp. — reflecting an unintended side effect, I’d argue, of wholesale media consolidation. Because unfair as it is, employees and the public seem to feel fewer compunctions about stealing from the equivalent of a big supermarket chain than they would, say, their local liquor store.

Swell as it is to be big, then, that size makes the studio monoliths less sympathetic. It’s also clear they’re swinging wildly regarding how best to curb piracy, trying everything from ad campaigns that feature blue-collar workers (a bit of a stretch) to prosecuting teenage downloaders, which should be about as effective as putting the clamps on a few recreational drug users.

Even before the Motion Picture Assn. of America weighed in, the question of piracy has been staring me in the face –literally — as I screen new TV series. In fact, I’m growing annoyed living in a world where law-breakers muck up my home viewing habits.

HBO, understandably persnickety about having people steal its service, has been especially aggressive about aping the bigscreen practice of stamping initials and numerical codes on tapes to discourage copying. As a result, said codes stare back at you the entire time you’re watching.

So as I attempted to lose myself in the first three episodes of the macabre drama “Carnivale,” my initials, “BL,” were emblazoned in the corner. Then again, to paraphrase a favorite line from “The Odd Couple,” I should be grateful my name isn’t “Felix Unger.”

Indeed, for all the focus on movies and music — where money that should be changing hands doesn’t — one need only scan eBay to find hundreds of award-consideration tapes in the TV memorabilia category, from the aforementioned “Married Man” (go figure) to “24” and “ER.”

Fox has affixed lengthy warnings to its press mailings that threaten everything but taking your first-born child, but that didn’t prevent its Emmy mailer from landing on eBay prior to the awards. Notably, many of these offerings are billed as being unopened, meaning the seller didn’t bother to watch the tapes enclosed — which probably explains some recent award selections.

As explained on the site, “These videos are highly collectible because they are only sent out to members of the Hollywood community so they can vote on various award shows, such as the Emmys and Golden Globes.” Potential buyers are assured the “24” tape is “in MINT CONDITION and STILL SEALED and was sent to Television Academy members ONLY ‘for your consideration’ for Emmy votes and is something that is nearly impossible for the general public to get their hands on!”

Unless, that is, some moron with an aversion to punctuation peddles it on eBay.

Establishing a tracking database for HBO’s “security burn-ins” isn’t terribly expensive, but it is time-consuming. Nevertheless, the channel is committed to having such codes on all its tapes and DVDs within the year, hoping it will serve as a deterrent.

Unlike film distributors, networks have virtually no choice but to send out tapes if they covet advance publicity, only to have them thrown into the giant hopper of “stuff being sold that shouldn’t be” by profiteering journalists, studio employees and production house workers.

In the months and years ahead, there doubtless will be much talk about technological methods to block DVD reproduction. A company called VeriTouch, for example, is hawking a “personalized encrypted disk” (or PED) that, it claims, “provides the world’s first biometrically secured content disk, which can only be played back by the authorized person for whom the disk was made.” I guess that makes them a PED dispenser.

Gary Brant, the company’s CEO, admits there are hurdles to overcome but insists encryption can work if it’s sold to the public as “the next cool device.”

Technology, however, can only go so far in tackling a problem where progress will rely in part on character as well as chyrons. Somehow, the industry has to figure out how to plead its case to consumers in clear, hysteria-free terms — in the same way the “drug war” can never be won as long as casual users remain undaunted by limp threats or overheated moral appeals.

There are no easy answers, but that’s at least a place to start — a free tip from me, “BL 6986,” to you.

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