While Hollywood hopes the one-year prison sentence for the “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” pirate will scare off potential copycats, the precedent-setting punishment is unlikely to dramatically affect the battle against content theft, experts say.
New Yorker Gilberto Sanchez was sentenced Monday to a year in federal prison for uploading the 20th Century Fox pic in March 2009 — more than one month before its theatrical release. His sentence is the longest incarceration for online theft of a single film, according to the Justice Department.
“I hope Internet pirates will think twice before they upload,” assistant U.S. attorney Lisa E. Feldman, who worked on the “Wolverine” case, told Variety. “Like Sanchez, they may think it gives them prestige but it could get them prison instead.”
Sanchez claimed that he obtained the “workprint” copy of the film — including several unfinished effects sequences — for $5 from a street vendor. He then uploaded it to Megaupload.com for a day before Fox had it removed. The FBI was later able to trace Sanchez’s IP address.
Studio viewed the 2009 upload as the most damaging incident of piracy to date, according to legal documents from the case, largely because the film hit the Web before its theatrical release. That’s almost unheard of, and it contributed to the severity of the punishment.
In 2003, pirated copies of “The Hulk,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” circulated in the U.K. before the films hit theaters, but none leaked as early as “Wolverine.”
Despite the severity of Monday’s sentencing and its potential to encourage judges to get tough on IP theft, legal experts question just how much of a deterrent it will be. The sentence could discourage some casual users but may not dissuade others who are more opposed to restrictions on distribution of copyrighted material. And since pic pirates often act out of personal interest rather than for profit, many content thieves fit the latter description.
“It should certainly act as a deterrent,” said Stanford U. law professor Paul Goldstein, an expert on intellectual property law. “Whether it deters the right people is still a question.”
The effect of individual punishments in piracy cases can be difficult to gauge. In 1997, congress passed the No Electronic Theft Act, which allowed more criminal penalties in piracy cases and opened the door to more effective criminal prosecution.
Since then, Hollywood has become more combative in its efforts to stop piracy. The MPAA is backing a controversial anti-piracy bill — the Stop Online Piracy Act — currently making its way through Congress. But opponents say the legislation could have unintended consequences, like censoring entire websites over small infractions.
Not all of the industry’s anti-piracy efforts are embraced by showbizzers. Award season screners, for example, are increasingly spurring complaints about complicated security coding that can make them hard to watch.