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Audiences Shouldn't Steal the Scenes

September 08, 2003|Jack Valenti

No nation can lay claim to greatness unless it lives by a code of conduct that sets forth what is right and what is plainly wrong. At the code's center should be respect for private property, real or intellectual.

Yet, with the Internet, works of creative artists are being filched in digital form -- casually, repeatedly and without concern for the rights of the owners. Ordinary people are saying, "Because I have the technological power to take movies and music from the Internet, and because it is so easy to do, with no risk or pain, I will do it and I won't care whose it is. "

What is puzzling is this: Only a few of those roaming the Internet would dare enter Blockbuster and furtively insert a DVD inside their jackets and walk out without paying for it. Why? Because they know they could be arrested for stealing.

Yet no one seems to feel fear or guilt when inserting a movie or song inside the digital jacket of a hard drive. But make no mistake about it: This is stealing, plain and simple. It is taking money out of the pockets of those who created and marketed the product.

How does this thievery occur? Thieves use sophisticated camcorders to replicate a film in a theater, or they snatch it (with help) from labs and copy it. These films then are hoisted onto the Internet and through "file stealing" sites like Kazaa, Morpheus, Gnutella, eDonkey and iMesh are "swapped" among millions of hard drives 24/7, all free.

Internationally, thieves rip the codes from new DVDs and duplicate them in the millions.

Industry experts have estimated that 400,000 to 600,000 illegal downloads of films are made every day. The movie industry is losing $3.5-billion-plus in video piracy.

Some people doubt such figures, because they believe it takes too long to download a movie to allow for that much piracy. Not so with high-speed broadband.

Even speedier technologies are on the horizon. Caltech has announced FAST, an experimental program that it says can download a DVD-quality movie in five seconds. Internet II, another experiment, sent 6.7 gigabytes halfway around the world in one minute! (A typical movie is 4.6 gigabytes.)

Skeptics may ask: "What are you whining about? Theatrical box office is terrific. Besides, why don't you just get a new business model?" Except that there is no business model that can compete with free.

We are embarking on alternative ways to dispatch movies to homes at fair prices. A rising number of these sites are now available. But to dispatch more movies to more homes, we have to know we can protect those films.

What about the fiscal side of the movie industry? When a film does $100 million at the box office, half goes to theaters and half goes to the distributor. If the film cost $90 million to make and market, the $50 million in revenue falls far short of recouping the whole investment.

Because only one film out of 10 ever gets its investment back from theatrical exhibition alone, a movie must journey through premium cable, basic cable, satellite delivery, network TV, international markets and, most of all, home video. If a movie is stolen early in that journey, its worth shrinks.

For the almost 1 million men and women who work in some aspect of the movie industry -- 99% of whom do not make big salaries and who have kids to send to college and mortgages to pay -- stolen movies mean an imperiled livelihood.

Moreover, the copyright industries represent the greatest American export and an awesome engine of economic growth. To allow unbridled theft to limit that growth is a knife in the heart of the U.S. economy.

The creative industries will find technological ways to combat this thievery. American consumers will benefit from honoring a moral compact and encouraging a bounty of creative works.

Anything less is neither worthy nor right for the nation -- and its citizens.

Jack Valenti is president and chief executive of the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

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