Steal a Movie, Go to Jail?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Oct 14, 2014

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Hollywood was slow to offer much of its content online, and for years before the advent of legitimate download sites like iTunes, pirate movie sites flourished.

According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the number of authorized streaming websites has doubled, to 100, since 2009. Americans legally watched 5.7 billion movies and 56 billion TV shows in 2013.

However, the availability of legal entertainment content isn’t putting bootleg sites out of business.

A study of “Copy Culture” in the US, done by The American Assembly at Columbia University, found that almost half the adults in the US copied, shared, and downloaded movies, TV shows, and other digital media. Among young adults (age 18-29), the figure was 70%. Some of this sharing is legal, but much of it is not. About 25% of Internet users worldwide have illegally downloaded content.

According to a New York Times report on the study,

The pervasive cultural norm, especially among younger people, is that illegal downloading, at least when it involves material from big corporations, is no big deal.

Immediate Gratification

Movie PiracyConsumer piracy isn’t just about money – it’s about instant access. People in the US want to watch “Downton Abbey” as soon as it comes out in the UK – not when appears for free on PBS months later.

Movie piracy – whether you upload or download – is illegal. The Times article mentioned above reported on how a young woman who co-founded the illegal streaming site NinjaVideo went to prison for 16 months for conspiracy and criminal copyright infringement.

(Ironically, the former operator of other pirate movie sites, who served two years in prison, outed the prison he was in for showing pirated movies to inmates.)

But according to Peter Eckersley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an advocacy group (“defending your rights in the digital world”), rather than trying to stop piracy the law should focus on helping copyright owners get paid for their work.

He suggested that sites and people that make money from the work of others should be required to share their profits with the content owners.

In the meantime, people who download movies illegally are more likely to be sued than go to jail.

“Porno Trolling”

The company that made the Oscar-winning film Dallas Buyer’s Club sued 31 people in a Texas federal court in February of 2014 for using BitTorrent to download the movie illegally. The suit is one of thousands that have been brought by movie studios, independent producers, and porn companies.

Usually, owners of copyrighted material demand a settlement of $2,000 to $5,000. Downloaders who refuse to pay face up to $150,000 in fines, so most pay up.

However, Mother Jones reports that some federal judges are becoming less likely to grant subpoenas to companies seeking the identities of the people behind the IP addresses used for piracy. Judges are even punishing some movie companies for bringing ill-founded lawsuits. In May of 2013, a judge in California fined copyright owners $81,320 for “porno trolling.”

Copyright owners that previously sued tens of thousands of downloaders at once are now bringing smaller suits against the more significant pirates.

What if I get sued for downloading?

People who find themselves accused of online piracy should consult a copyright lawyer. Information is also available from sites like DieTrollDie and the EFF.

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