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ATPM 8.11
November 2002



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Segments: Slices from the Macintosh Life

by Gregory Tetrault,

Internet “Piracy” of Films and Broadcasts: Is It a Problem or an Excuse for Restricting Copyrights?

The U. S. entertainment industry pays lobbyists and publicists to address the issue of digital rights management (DRM) and the threats to the industry posed by Internet-enabled piracy (see next paragraph). The entertainment industry’s campaign resembles that made by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) about music piracy, which many people believe is more about loss of control over distribution than about copyright violations. The entertainment industry’s stated goal is to prevent piracy (and resultant loss of revenues) so that it can continue to make movies and TV shows, and release them in digital formats (HDTV and DVD).

Fritz Hollings, often referred to as the Senator for Hollywood, aided their cause by proposing two bills: the Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA) and the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA). Both bills would require the use of government-approved copy protection and digital rights management systems in all relevant equipment (including personal computers). The required hardware would contain chips that recognize flags embedded in commercial media (DVDs, digital tapes, SACDs, etc.) or within digital broadcasts. The chips would identify the digital rights restrictions based on the flag and would limit your abilities to store or copy the media or the broadcast. Under the proposed law, the DRM chip would have to be installed in all computers, DVD recorders, hard drive recorders (like TiVo), video recorders, DVD players, etc. You can read more about these DRM proposals at the Web site of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

My recent experience with video “piracy” shows that the entertainment industry’s claims about the dangers of digital piracy via the Internet are illogical.

I have been a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan since it first appeared on the WB network. I lost interest last year when BTVS almost became a UPN soap opera, but I enjoyed this season’s first two episodes. I attempted to record episode 3 on my VCR, but something went wrong, and I had an hour of blue screen. (An experience that reminded me of using Windows.) Current BTVS episodes are not rebroadcast until reruns appear in November or December. Since I didn’t want to watch episodes out of sequence, I decided to download a digitized copy from the Internet.

My first task was to find a copy of season 7, episode 3 (“Same Time, Same Place”). I used Hogwasher (a news group reader I recently reviewed) to find newsgroup names containing “buffy” Of the 11 groups listed, alt.binaries.multimedia.buffy-v-slayer looked the most promising. I found an MPEG version of the episode. It was comprised of 37 parts, and each part had approximately 22 subparts. I selected them all for download, but ran out of hard drive space (although I had nearly 1 GB free on the selected partition). It turns out that Hogwasher keeps the files in its database (until it is compacted), so I needed twice as much space as expected. I downloaded the remaining parts to another hard drive. Downloading was complete after around 90 minutes (using a high speed cable connection). I now had 37 files with “.rar” extensions. I tried to decompress and combine the files using the shareware application MacRAR 2.5.1, but it just gave me error messages. I searched the Internet for other Macintosh utilities that can combine .rar files, but I had no success. (StuffIt Expander now has the ability to handle .rar formats, but I did not know that.)

I gave up on the utility search and launched Virtual PC. I had an evaluation copy of WinRAR 2.9.0 that I thought would work. I put all 37 parts into one Macintosh folder which I then “shared” with Virtual PC. WinRAR successfully combined the .rar MPEG segments in about 10 minutes (not a bad time for an emulated Windows 95 system). I quit VPC and launched the recombined episode with QuickTime Player 6.0. The movie appeared in a small window. I doubled the window size (to approximately 8 by 6 inches) without losing image quality. Unfortunately, the audio was not synchronized with the video. I watched the episode (which I would rate 6 out of 10) and then trashed all the associated files (to regain disk space).

So, let’s look at this logically. I confirmed one of the entertainment industry’s biggest fears: I downloaded and viewed a “pirated” copy of a show. The pirated version did not include advertisements, another entertainment industry complaint. (One of their spokespersons went so far as to say that it is piracy to watch a broadcast show without viewing the commercials!)

But, how did my actions differ from my original plan of watching a videotaped episode? The episode had been freely broadcast and had been recorded legally by thousands of fans. I never watch commercials, even on live broadcasts, so my “piracy” had no impact on the sales of products advertised during the live broadcast. Instead, I went through much trouble just to watch a low quality, low resolution, 43-minute television show.

I dread to think of the effort needed to acquire a full-length, DVD-quality movie via the Internet. The download size would be 10-fold greater, the movie would take up more than 4 GB of hard drive space, and I would need an expensive DVD burner and a $4 blank DVD disk to create a bootleg copy of the DVD. Why would I or anyone else go to so much trouble when commercial DVD movies can be purchased for $6 to $22? (My average purchase price for the scores of DVDs I own is approximately $13.) It is possible that someone could mass produce pirated DVD movies, but they would have to sell them for $6 to $10 just to get a reasonable return on their investment (while running the risk of a hefty fine and a jail sentence). Plus, how many people would purchase bootleg movie DVDs of unknown quality just to save $5 to $10?

The entertainment industry’s recent efforts to thwart digital piracy occur when DVD player sales and DVD movie sales are higher than ever. Movie theater attendance remains high, and is higher than twenty years ago. In the 1980s, the entertainment industry claimed that cable TV and video cassette recorders would result in the widespread bankruptcy of movie theaters. Instead, movie theater attendance continually increased (despite big increases in ticket prices).

Looking at all the factors objectively, I see no logical reason for implementing hardware-related anti-piracy measures to “protect” the entertainment industry. Their arguments have less merit than those of the RIAA regarding audio CDs. Existing laws already protect against blatant piracy (selling illegal VCR, VCD, or DVD copies of movies and TV shows). Requiring new computers, DVD players, video recording devices, digital broadcast receivers, etc. to include digital rights management hardware would infringe on our legal rights to make personal copies, would add unnecessary costs and delays to new hardware, and would do little to prevent commercial piracy, especially in countries that would not require DRM hardware.

It is my belief that the primary reason that broadcasters and others in the entertainment industry are advocating digital rights restrictions is to increase their control of media. If they can prevent the recording of broadcast shows or the playing of “pirated” media, then they can force customers to either view the shows during live broadcasts or wait for authorized (and costly) DVD releases. Their proposed actions would restrict our fair use rights and prevent us from “time-shifting” and viewing shows at our convenience.

Also in This Series

Reader Comments (8)

M. Geiger · November 4, 2002 - 15:07 EST #1
I have two quandaries:

One: my DVD player plays commercial CDs but not CDs I've burned that are simply compilation of CDs I already own. I hate it when a commercial CD has 9 great songs and one lousy one, so I customize my CDs to my taste and stash the 'store-boughts'. My insensate DVD player has determined that I am a pirate. CD players aren't that fussy.

Problem number 2 is that I would really, really like a copy of "The Raven" with Vincent Price, but I don't have a VCR (the only available format is VHS). Even if I could get someone to copy "The Raven" onto a DVD for me, would my DVD player also deem this pirating? Probably. I don't want a copy so badly that I'll spend hours downloading a peer to peer copy of the internet that may be of questionable quality, if it works at all.
Bud · March 4, 2003 - 16:36 EST #2
"Joe" can relate to this article. Joe is a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and he missed quite a few episodes. So, he started downloading all of the ones that he missed using Kazaa. It took him a long time but, after about 2 weeks, he downloaded 34 full-length episodes. On the average, each one is about 445 megabytes. Joe's hard drive now has nearly 13 gigabytes of Buffy episodes. Joe is quite pleased with the quality of each download and looks forward to watching new episodes of Buffy air on TV even more now. Also, would it be illegal to watch a show recorded by Tivo or a VCR and fast forward through the commercials?
Gregory Tetrault (ATPM Staff) · March 4, 2003 - 17:12 EST #3
To Bud:

Yikes! That is a lot of downloading and splicing. It's easier to tape the reruns or buy or rent the DVDs.

There is no legal requirement to preserve commercials when recording broadcasts for personal use.
Kari · December 8, 2003 - 15:38 EST #4
What are my rights when it comes to downloading TV episodes? I got a letter about illegal downloads of a movie. Doesn't that invade my privacy? They can't see what's on my computer, can they?
Gregory Tetrault (ATPM Staff) · December 8, 2003 - 22:53 EST #5
To Kari:

In the U.S., programs that are broadcast over the air or on cable can be freely recorded, and those recordings can be freely distributed as long as they are not sold or used as a business promotion. It is legal to record and distribute broadcast TV shows, newscasts, movies, music, etc.

The law is different regarding programs that have never been broadcast. These are protected by copyright and obtaining copies without permission is illegal. Example: someone sneaks a digital camera into a movie theater, records a new movie, and distributes it over the Internet. That is illegal and the person who recorded it and anyone who downloads it are breaking the law. The same is true for non-broadcast movies ripped from DVDs (which also violates the DMCA). However, once a movie has been broadcast, copies of the broadcast are legal. (That may not last long, since movie businesses are lobbying Congress to make copying broadcast movies and shows illegal.)
Raena Armitage (ATPM Staff) · December 9, 2003 - 08:56 EST #6
Hi Kari,

Unfortunately they can, in fact, find out what's on your computer, via the roundabout way of finding out what you downloaded or shared from a P2P service like Kazaa and then subpoenaing your ISP to discover your identity. These days, new laws (the USA PATRIOT Act among them) permits these kinds of investigations. Although Greg mentions that you may record a broadcast and give it to someone, there are still limits on your distribution rights.

If you've received a message from a company or their lawyer, you should contact your lawyer or a legal advice center as soon as you can and discuss its contents with them. You may also get some value from reading the resources at the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse and the EFF's file sharing info pages.
Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · December 9, 2003 - 10:12 EST #7
I feel compelled to call for a clarification in Raena's response—I don't believe she's saying they can instantly poke around your computer if it's online to see what's there. They can, however, order the ISP to submit a history of IPs visited and your contact information. They can also subpoena your activity on P2P services.
Kari · December 11, 2003 - 12:09 EST #8
Thank you for your comments.

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