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Editorial

Moving against movie piracy

It's serious business, and it needs to be curtailed. But the industry has been too vigilant in a few cases.

December 19, 2009

Who knows what Gilberto Sanchez was thinking when he allegedly stole an unfinished version of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and uploaded it to the Web a month before the movie's theatrical release. But whatever it was, Sanchez has probably changed his mind in the last few days, because at 6 a.m. Wednesday, the FBI showed up at his home in the Bronx and arrested him on charges that could lead to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

If that seems like a tough penalty for what some might consider a harmless, victimless crime, it's not. By now most of us should understand that movie piracy is no joke. According to 20th Century Fox, which made the $150-million movie, only a few hours after Sanchez's copy was posted, thousands of people had watched it. Ultimately, Fox estimated, the file was downloaded as many as 15 million times.

What's the effect of that on ticket sales? Hard to say. Some people who downloaded the movie probably wouldn't have gone to see it in the theater anyway. And some no doubt went to see it in the theater as well, after its special effects and final sound were in place. But there's no question that Sanchez's act of piracy resulted in lots of lost ticket sales, which meant revenue down the drain for Fox.

The Motion Picture Assn. of America offers all kinds of dire numbers about the effect of piracy. According to a spokeswoman, the big U.S. studios lost $6.1 billion in 2005 to piracy, and the global film industry lost $18.2 billion. Those numbers are based on a worldwide study of consumer behavior, but it's hard to judge how accurate they are. Besides, they're antiquated: In 2005, most movie piracy involved the sale of bootleg DVDs; these days, with the expansion of broadband, Internet downloads are increasingly the problem. The "Wolverine" case was also particularly damaging because Sanchez made the movie available pre-release rather than after it was in theaters.

Let us be clear: Piracy is unacceptable. We're glad Congress provided $30 million this month for new FBI agents and federal prosecutors and law enforcement grants to crack down on the theft of movies and other intellectual property.

At the same time, the industry shouldn't overreact. It was sobering to read about 22-year-old Samantha Tumpach, who was arrested last month in a theater near Chicago when managers saw her shooting a video of "Twilight: New Moon." She was charged even though she had only three minutes of movie snippets on her camera, interspersed with scenes from her sister's birthday party at the theater. Piracy is serious business, but Tumpach is no Long John Silver.

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