Sunday, November 29, 2009

Online movie free-for-all; Chicago Sun-Times, 11/22/09

Kara Spak, Chicago Sun-Times; Online movie free-for-all:

"This weekend, you could pay $10 to see the cinematic vampire love story "New Moon," stand in line for overpriced snacks with your new tween buddies and then jostle for a seat in a crowded theater.

Or you could pop some microwave popcorn, open your laptop and log on to a Web site with the supremely blatant name watchnew, which was active 12 hours after the movie premiered in Chicago theaters. is but one place "New Moon" is popping up for free online. And it's not just movies and current season premium cable shows that anyone who knows how to search the Web can find.

On Nov. 14, 1.25 million pay-per-view buys of the Miguel Cotto vs. Manny Pacquiao fight were purchased for $54.95 each, the highest-performing boxing pay-per-view event this year, according to HBO.

The fight generated $70 million in revenue, as well as a prime opportunity for cheapskates to watch the streaming video live for free.

On fight day, some combination of Google searches for the words Pacquiao, Cotto, online, live stream and free made seven of the 40 spots on Google's Hot Trends list, which tracks the fastest-rising searches on a given day.

The entertainment industry is waging a mighty battle against online piracy, or the illegal distribution of copyrighted content online.

But copyright law hasn't evolved as quickly as the Internet. And a new generation that has grown up online doesn't see the harm in watching the latest theatrical releases on their home computers, a practice the Motion Picture Association of America estimated cost the industry $18.2 billion in 2005, the latest figure available.

"I don't think it's wrong," said 21-year-old online movie-watcher Ahmad Al-Ashqar of south suburban Palos Heights. "I'm sure the movie industry is doing a lot of harm to us, taking our money."

Al-Ashqar, a senior at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he doesn't have spare cash for a night out at the movies.

"I'd rather just watch it at home," he said. "It's easier and cheaper."

'Complicated question'

Elizabeth Kaltman, spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America, said in no uncertain terms that watching a current theatrical release online is theft.

"Nobody who isn't a criminal would walk into Blockbuster or Wal-Mart or Best Buy, wherever they're selling or renting DVDs, take it off the shelf, put it under their arm and not pay for it," she said. "For a generation that has grown up with the Internet . . . there is a perception that because it is there, it's available and it's free, I can take it."

The law, with regard to watching online movies, is a little more vague.

"It is certainly illegal to put online copyrighted content like a telecast of a fight or a motion picture without authorization," said Steve Englund, a copyright attorney at Jenner & Block who has worked with new media. "It is a little more complicated question whether it is illegal to watch it when someone else has put it online."

Mickie Piatt, law professor and interim director of the Intellectual Property Law program at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said that while watching new-release movies or pay-per-view fights for free online may not be illegal, it is enabling the illegal distribution of the content.

"There's a lot of tensions going on in the copyright world," she said. "Because of the Internet, people feel they should have access to a lot of things."

Federal law sets up steep fines for copyright infringement. There's also the possibility of damages from civil lawsuits. And those who distribute illegal content online could be prosecuted.

"There are some criminal penalties, but those have not been used as much," Piatt said.

It's costly and difficult to track individual viewers, so the movie industry is trying to strike at the source of these downloads: the camera-wielding pirate who is recording in a movie theater.

Brittany Parlour, 20, a UIC junior who lives in Little Italy, said she watched movies including "Stepbrothers" and "This Christmas" online when they were new releases in theater. She thought it might be illegal, but that's not the only reason she stopped watching movies online.

"I was really annoyed," she said of the often poor quality of the pirated films.

Kaltman said more than 90 percent of current theatrical releases that wind up online come from a person in a theater with a camera. Every movie released by a studio contains a watermark, she said.

"Through forensic analysis, we can determine where the theft took place -- what state, what theater, what auditorium," she said.

The MPAA has field offices around the country to track and stop illegal recording, she said. "We also have, along with the enforcement activities, litigation activities which involve trying to get stuff off the Internet once it's up," she said.

The entertainment industry is working on getting high-quality content to viewers online legally, through sites such as, which features current television episodes, Piatt said.

She predicted further changes to help consumers get what they want, when they want it, but also to protect copyrights.

"The music industry hasn't quite figured out how to do this, and neither has the movie industry or event industry," she said. "We have this real tension that exists in the business model that really comes from an era of being able to control the distribution of things instead of the distribution of information."",CST-NWS-online22s1.article

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