Hollywood considers consumer blowback

Twenty-three-year-old New Jersey resident Timothy Epifan sued his local police department and the MPAA last week. His claim: As he was being pursued for illegally camcording a copy of “Bruno” at his local multiplex, he slipped out of his flip-flops and an unmarked cop car struck him, dragging him some 10 feet.

My first thought: There really was a black market for “Bruno”? Second: Get tough on piracy, get ready for blowback.

The potential for blowback probably factors into why Hollywood’s chief trade group, the MPAA, is not playing a role in a far more controversial effort that has generated greater attention: suing users, or consumers, of illegal movie downloads.

Acting on their own, the producers of “The Expendables” are seeking the identities of 23,000 individuals who shared a bootleg of the movie via BitTorrent. The producers are eyeing litigation.

They may be hoping to send a message that they, like their action stars, are tougher than tough. But such an approach has largely been abandoned by the major studios because of the legal morass involved and because of the public-relations peril.

Effort to root out the names of “Expendables” downloaders is being driven by Virginia law firm, Dunlap, Grubb & Weaver, and the org created to pursue the claims, the U.S. Copyright Group. They’ve represented producers of “The Hurt Locker,” as well as other films, in what has turned out to be a complex feat of legal manuevers and procedure.

The studios have been trying to get college campuses and Internet service providers to send out warning messages to infringing users, but their recent strategy has largely been to go after the source of piracy, not to sue those who just want to watch their movies.

There’s some risk that consumers may not discern the difference in strategies: It’s all Hollywood to them.

Last month conservative Washington Times editorialists railed against a federal judge who, in a separate case, ordered an ISP to turn over the identities of thousands of customers suspected of illegally downloading a bunch of B-movies. The editorial was titled “Hollywood trial lawyers’ inside job,” although the major studios had nothing to do with it.

Does it matter?

Jack Lerner, clinical associate professor of law at USC, says, “It wasn’t until the digital age that action against consumers was really contemplated on this kind of scale. The solution isn’t to provide old-world ligitation strategies. Instead, the solution should be in finding value propositions for your consumers.”

Richard Atkinson, chief piracy specialist for Anti-piracy Worldwide, points out in presentations to studios and industry officials the increasing number of “dual consumers” who watch both pirated movies and legally obtained ones. Often, he says, they are the best customers.

That’s what is so vexing for Hollywood. Strides have been made in enforcement and legislation, including a bill introduced Thursday targeting “rogue” websites, but the message to consumers has been caught between the carrot and the stick. Whether it’s ominous pre-movie spots or a make-your-own antipiracy PSA contest, nothing has really emerged as the key to changing behavior in a youth culture raised on free.

That’s a reason why independent producers are taking matters into their own hands.

Nicolas Chartier, prexy of “Hurt Locker” producer Voltage Pictures, scoffs at the PR implications, saying recently, “Seven million illegal downloads, and the movie cost $12 million to make. … If you don’t stop it, it’s just going to get worse.”

Attorney Thomas Dunlap, who is taking the lead in the legal efforts, is getting pummeled in the tech media for the effort. One 64-year-old Irving, Texas, man who got a notice last year — for a movie he says he’s never even heard of — told CNET that it was an “obvious intimidation scam.” Users are given the chance to settle for a few thousand dollars rather than the $150,000-per-infringement max that plaintiffs can seek. But Dunlap said his firm’s action is not only within copyright holders’ rights, it has had the desired effect: deterrence. “We have seen as much as an 80% decline in torrents on films we represent.”

All that and, so far, no police chase.

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