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Hollywood's Piracy Jitters

October 01, 2003

Hollywood studio executives used to watch the music industry's battle against digital piracy from a comfortable armchair, confident that downloading a movie took too long to be a threat. They are sitting cushily no more.

Internet connections are ever speedier. One experimental technology at Caltech, called FAST, could let users download a DVD movie in just five seconds, and gizmos for downloading songs and movies (such as capacious pocket-sized wireless disk drives) can be had for under $100.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America is trying new defensive angles. One is a media campaign aimed at persuading teenagers that "file sharers" are dime-store thieves, not swashbucklers. So far, the industry hasn't followed the Recording Industry of America, which has filed hundreds of copyright- infringement suits against individual song swappers. MPAA members, however, have their lawyers at the starting line and vow to crush anyone posting pirated movies.

Shame and lawsuits will get the industry only so far. It also has to respond to legitimate demand for digital movies. But the high-tech industry and Hollywood content providers get along as well as a pair of tomcats in a dark alley. They have gone nowhere in developing digital copying standards and protections for movies. What's more, both sides seem to agree that they can't solve this problem on their own. On Monday, the file-sharing industry called upon Congress to set the terms for legal file sharing. Earlier this year, the executive vice president of the MPAA called for much the same. Issues dividing them include how consumers might pay (per download? a monthly fee?) and what the anti-piracy technology would be.

The film industry also needs White House help. Last year, movies lost about $3 billion in sales to mass illegal DVD producers abroad. Filched versions of "Spider-Man" appeared in Kabul, Afghanistan, weeks before it opened in U.S. theaters. The Bush administration should oppose World Trade Organization membership for copyright- flaunting nations such as Ukraine (which the White House calls the world's worst violator) until they begin cracking down on digital assembly lines.

On Monday, the file-sharing industry's newly created lobbying group, P2P (for "peer-to-peer networking"), released a "code of conduct" calling on all file sharers to inform users that piracy is illegal. That may have been, as many Hollywood executives scoffed, a mere press opportunity. But both sides would gain from some new ideas.

As representatives of Consumers Union told Congress last month, "We have to find a way to harmonize the creativity of the content producers and the creativity of the engineers and scientists and computer programming.... There are all sorts of ways to protect content that don't involve creating content prisons."

A failure to agree could spell the end of such experiments as Movielink, a file-sharing site that lets consumers download films via the Internet for 99 cents to $5, and Moviebeam, a higher-tech digital service that Walt Disney Co. is developing with Samsung. The promise should keep both sides trying.

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