The case for being anti-anti-piracy

I know it’s wrongheaded, but I’m beginning to be anti-anti-piracy.

Wherever you turn these days, the anti-piracy mafia has become ever more shrill. There’s a new White House initiative, there are new bills in the House and Senate — and then, of course, there are Hollywood’s awards-season screeners. The DVDs sent to voters do not begin with a cheerful invitation to enjoy the film, but rather with a litany of legal threats that each year grow longer and more dire.

Talk to the anti-piracy professionals, of course, and they’ll acknowledge these admonitions consist of useless legal rhetoric. Each year, essentially the same percentage of vids end up getting pirated anyway.

There are growing signs that the copyright-protection lobby is pissing people off rather than converting them to the cause. Political leaders and the Silicon Valley elite all seem alarmed by new bills with virtuous-sounding titles like the Protect Intellectual Property Act — bills that, as the Wall Street Journal observed, could “strangle the Internet with regulation.”

The fear is that, if these bills pass, a single infringing link on a single page of a website could result in the entire site being shut down.

In Hollywood, the release of screeners each year plays out like a ritual of ambivalence. The studios want voters to view the screeners — but not really. They’d prefer we go to theaters. So would filmmakers, who resent seeing their artistry squeezed onto a TV screen. Even the Academy’s furtive experiments with digital downloads make filmmakers edgy because streamed images look more like standard-def DVDs than like high-def Blu-rays (the same for iTunes streaming).

I’ve been an Oscar voter for many years and relish the annual avalanche of screeners, but I nonetheless find the threats and admonitions tiresome. Further, a substantial number of TV sets cannot recognize the “enter” instruction on the vids that certify your “acceptance” of the threats, so you never get to see the movie anyway.

Historically, screeners have always seemed to drive the Academy to distraction. One year voters were even sent a device that scanned the screeners, but many were defective and were soon discarded.

For the studios, dispatching screeners is an expensive exercise — the whole production and marketing process comes to as much as $400,000 a film. Voters may receive a DVD and a Blu-ray but distributors are not supposed to send more than one screener to a voter.

To save costs, a few studios have tried to develop exclusionary lists of “retired” Academy members — those who do not pay their $250 annual fee and thus cannot cast votes. No one knows what percentage of the 6,000 Academy members is “retired” but it could run into the thousands as a result of the bad economy and the Academy’s AARP-plus demographics.

As a voting member, I still find it gratifying to watch a screener in the quiet of my den to admire the individual components of the filmmaking process — art direction, cinematography, etc. With that in mind, it’s doubly jarring to be instructed at the outset that I must break the screener in half immediately upon viewing and feed it into the nearest inferno.

I don’t like destroying movies. I also don’t like breaking videos in half (there must be myriad lawsuits over cuts and bruises). Finally, what if the voter wants to rerun a DVD just before the final vote to reassess a performance or even a musical score?

The anti-piracy zealots aren’t interested in aesthetic considerations such as these. They want to protect their copyright even if they have to badger you and send you to jail to do so.

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