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Music business executives may have a rising ally in the war on illegal downloading: the movie business. A lawsuit filed last Monday in the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. pits the movie business against those who engage in the unlawful file-sharing of films. Though the lawsuit is not the first of its kind, it breaks with the traditional legal scheme in that the suit was filed on behalf of movie makers, not music tycoons.
Producers of “The Hurt Locker,” which had meager earnings at the box office but took home six Academy Awards, brought the suit against 5,000 unnamed individuals who they allege copied and distributed the film using BitTorrent sites. The film was available for viewing six months before it was released in theaters, and the producers plan to show a link between the low earnings at the box office and the unlawful downloading of the film. Voltage Pictures has partnered up with The U.S. Copyright Group to bring the suit, a company comprised of intellectual property lawyers whose mission is to “stop movie copyright infringement and make illegal downloaders pay damages for the content they have stolen.”
According to the complaint, “[a] Defendant’s distribution of even one unlawful copy of a motion picture can result in the nearly instantaneous worldwide distribution of that single copy to a limitless number of people.” Well, yes, that’s the idea, isn’t it? As is increasingly common in these types of suits, the Plaintiffs will soon subpoena Internet Service Providers to identify specific individuals who engaged in the alleged infringement. Currently, the producers are seeking a settlement of $1,500 per infringement as a penalty, which, if not accepted by the Defendants, could turn into ten times that amount if the Plaintiff’s seek traditional copyright infringement damages at trial.
The strategy of suing average citizens for copyright infringement arising from illegal downloads is nothing new. Most infamous, perhaps, were the similar lawsuits filed against individuals by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) when the music industry began to hemorrhage its coveted profits. However, it seems a rather unwise move for the movie industry to follow a similar path, considering the lawsuits the RIAA filed resulted in de facto publicity suicide for the recording industry as consumer backlash and outrage erupted. It should be noted that the Motion Picture Association of America, the movie business trade organization equivalent to the RIAA, has publicly stated they have no involvement with the lawsuit, and have no plans to intervene. Perhaps the trade organization took a lesson from the music business after all.
However, this legal move by movie producers might signal a rebirth of this type of litigation strategy for combating Internet piracy. As the first industry to take on consumers, the music business seemed rather isolated in its move to indulge its corporate appetite; no other media industries were taking a swing at consumers. But now, if more media-centered industries begin suing consumers as they begin to feel the financial losses caused by illegal downloading, a more unified front may be set to emerge. Nevertheless, the music industry more or less demonstrated that this strategy is largely ineffective against curbing online piracy, and the even if the producers of the film get a victory in court, they’ll likely lose the consumer popularity contest.
In any case, this type of strategy has largely gone by the wayside, replaced with more subtle tactics to combat infringement. Perhaps the producers of “The Hurt Locker” will follow suit after what is sure to be a publicity disaster. Or, perhaps they were feeling particularly litigious, as they themselves were recently sued by a soldier who served in Iraq that claimed the film used his story without his permission and depicted him in an unfavorable light. In any case, the movie business now seemed primed to join the music industry as a big bad business out of touch with both consumers and technology.
– Lauren Kilgore
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