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Auction Sites Latest Video Piracy Headache

Internet: Trade groups and movie studios are joining with EBay, Amazon to pursue violators.

March 16, 2000|THOMAS K. ARNOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The day Academy Award nominations were announced, Web surfers could click onto EBay, the online auction site, and buy "advance videos" of multiple-nominee "American Beauty" at a starting bid of $20.

The auction, occurring before DreamWorks SKG even announced the video release date of "American Beauty," highlights the movie industry's latest piracy nightmare.

EBay subsequently shut down the auction at the request of the Motion Picture Assn. of America because sales of "screeners" such as the ones for "American Beauty" are expressly forbidden. Typically, these advance copies are distributed by studios to members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences weeks before the nominations. They are clearly marked "for promotional use only."

Kenneth Jacobsen, who runs the MPAA's domestic anti-piracy office, says increasing enforcement effort these days is being directed at the Internet, and at auction sites in particular.

How big a factor Internet auction sites play in the domestic video piracy problem, which costs movie studios an estimated $250 million a year, is difficult to determine, Jacobsen said.

"It's hard to quantify because I don't even pretend that we see everything up there that might be illegal," he said. "I can tell you that in January we requested that EBay close 69 auctions, and that was just one auction site."

Concerned about advance copies of the surprise hit "The Blair Witch Project," Artisan Home Entertainment lopped off the ending on screeners sent to video retailers in August, about six weeks before the video was to be released.

Within days, EBay was auctioning off the screener and the entire promotional kit, according to Jeff Fink, president of sales and marketing for Artisan. "By the time we saw it, it had already sold for $75," Fink said.

Among the videos that catch the MPAA's attention are advance screeners sent to academy members as well as those sent to video retailers to drum up sales; crude copies of current movies filmed in theaters by hand-held camcorders; and pirated copies of films available on video in Europe but not in the United States.

"People on the Internet believe they have anonymity; they believe we won't know who they are," Jacobsen said.

To a large degree, they're right. Jacobsen concedes the MPAA's policing efforts are minimal. Generally, action is taken only if someone calls the MPAA and alerts officials to a potentially illegal auction. The MPAA then notifies the auction site, asks that the auction be closed down and then attempts to identify the "auctioneer."

In the case of Academy Awards screeners, "there's always the possibility that they don't realize what they are doing is not legal," Jacobsen said. "If they have multiple copies for sale, we would go out and interview them and find out what member of the academy the screeners came from--or if the seller is a member of the academy. We would then pass on that information to the academy."

Both the MPAA and member studios say they will be more aggressive in pursuing violators in an attempt to discourage more would-be auctioneers.

"We take whatever measures are necessary, including legal action, to . . . protect our copyright," said Mitch Koch, who runs domestic video for Buena Vista Home Entertainment, the Walt Disney Co.'s video distribution arm.

The Internet auction sites themselves are quite willing to work with the MPAA on cracking down on illegal video sales. "We have a very close working relationship with Amazon, which does their own pre-screening," Jacobsen said. He said MPAA provides the company with monthly video release schedules so Amazon can screen for illegal product before it goes up on their auction site.

He said EBay does not pre-screen. "We would like them to, but their lawyers do not feel they can do that," Jacobsen said. "Still, they are very responsive about closing auctions, and if your auctions are closed twice, they ban you from the auction site."

Paul Capelli, a spokesman for Amazon.com, said teams of screeners go over submitted auctions before they are posted to weed out potentially illegal merchandise.

Kevin Pursglove, senior director of communications for EBay, said the world's No. 1 online auction house, with upward of 4.2 million items for sale at any one time, does not pre-screen merchandise because of the risk of error.

"Let's face it, if I was a screener at EBay, I could remove stuff that shouldn't be removed, and that would be a disservice to the seller," he said. Instead, Pursglove said, EBay encourages "anybody who is concerned about intellectual property on EBay to establish a verified rights owners program," in which they receive notification by e-mail of any potentially illegal product.

With Oscar fever rising until March 26, when the actual winners are announced, all concerned parties say they will scrutinize Internet auction sites even more carefully for illegal video sales. But the problem isn't limited to screeners.

DreamWorks spokeswoman Vivian Mayer said she frequently finds other Hollywood promotional material on the auction sites. "You can find a variety of marketing materials on the Internet, from press kits to actual screeners," she said. "For our film 'Chicken Run,' we have this egg-of-the-month promotion in which each character from the movie is on an egg. We've found our eggs on EBay."

Thomas K. Arnold is editor in chief and associate publisher of Video Store Magazine, a weekly trade magazine.

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