- The Washington Times - Friday, May 1, 2009

Near the end of a wide-ranging discussion, James Toback, director of the critically acclaimed documentary “Tyson,” passed on an interesting, if somewhat alarming, story.

His agent’s wife had been on an airplane the day before and had noticed something odd: Her row mate was watching “Tyson,” in its entirety, on his portable DVD player. This is a movie that, at the time, hadn’t yet been released and was still a week away from hitting major markets.

“You know, you shouldn’t be doing that,” the woman gently scolded.

“Why?” the young man asked.

“Well, you know, a friend of mine directed the movie.”

“Well, it’s a great movie,” he replied.

“But that’s not the point!”

“Well, how do you expect me to see it? That’s the only way to see it now.”

At this, the director just shook his head and laughed. “It didn’t even occur to him” that what he was doing was wrong, Mr. Toback said, imagining the thought process of a naive digital pirate: “Here it is. This is the way to see it. Why should I wait until it comes out — and pay?”

It’s no wonder that today’s generation, raised in the age of Napster and BitTorrent and pirated DVDs on every third street corner, doesn’t respect intellectual property rights. However, the sheer scale of that disrespect is somewhat staggering — and things are only getting worse.

Last month, an almost-finished, DVD-quality work print of “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” popped up on file-sharing Web sites. It was soon downloaded more than 1 million times and seen by untold numbers of people.

Movie piracy has been around for years, of course, and the digital age has made such piracy easier than ever. But this was the first time a major studio’s summer tent-pole release had been leaked almost intact and at a decent resolution. Needless to say, the studio, 20th Century Fox, was furious. When a columnist for sister company FoxNews.com wrote a glowing review of the pirated movie, he was fired almost immediately. The FBI was called in to investigate the origin of the leak.

Less than two weeks later, in an unrelated case, the founders of Pirate Bay, the Swedish Web site seen by many as the largest and most important hub for illegal file sharing, were convicted of copyright infringement in a Swedish court.

The mass downloading of “Wolverine” was accompanied by howls from the Movie Picture Association of America and the studios, as analysts predicted a huge drop in box office and a crippling financial blow to an already-reeling studio. Those fears seem to have been overblown: Less than a month removed from the leak, the big-budget sequel is tracking through the roof, and rival studios predict an opening-weekend box-office take as high as $80 million.

As a result, expect to see an upswing in piracy apologists claiming that Internet piracy isn’t really a big deal: The authorities simply have overreacted to the monetary threat of these file-sharing Web sites. Some will go so far as to argue that copyright itself is an outdated notion, that it stifles new developments and unfairly hinders the public’s ability to enjoy a product.

Needless to say, this is silly. As Mark Helprin notes in his new book on the importance of copyright, “Digital Barbarians,” even if those who don’t pay for something aren’t infringing on the rest of the world’s enjoyment of a product — indeed, even if they never would have paid for the product anyway — they have created an untenable state of affairs. In an analogy, he likens those who ignore copyright restrictions to those who sneak onto a golf course and skip the greens fees:

“Even if the nonpayers don’t tear up the fairways, and play at night so as not to crowd them, if the general rule is to sneak on and only a few people pay, very soon there will be no golf course for lack of revenue. Therein would lie the harm, both to the bankrupt golf course owners and to the general public with no more golf course.”

Mr. Helprin brought on the wrath of the anti-copyright movement after penning a column for the New York Times in which he called for extending the duration of posthumous copyright protection. He sees intellectual property as no different from brick-and-mortar property, something that a creator should be able to pass down to his descendants as generations of Hiltons have done with their hotels. In “Digital Barbarians,” Mr. Helprin gets to the heart of the issue.

“The resistance to paying for copyrighted material, although often characterized as arising from a supposed technical burden or principled concern for the public interest, arises rather from exactly the same segment of the brain that is dominant in shoplifters,” he writes.

These people — the airplane passenger watching “Tyson,” the million or more who downloaded “Wolverine,” the guy on the street corner hocking shoddy-looking knockoff DVDs — are thieves, plain and simple. What took the authorities so long to get around to taking them down?

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