EDITORIAL: The public life of Walter Mitty

A leak is a leak, and funny business, in Hollywood

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A pirated DVD of the film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was leaked to the Internet the other day bearing a watermark with the name of Ellen DeGeneres. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the hostess of the upcoming 2014 Academy Awards is the leaker, or even that “Mitty” is an Oscar contender. During the holiday season, movie studios routinely send out hundreds of DVD copies of films, called “screeners,” they hope to be considered for awards. The screeners, which go to influential industry insiders, are piracy bait. Hollywood has no one to blame for the problem, if actual problem it is, but itself.

Pirated screeners have been around since trolls figured out how to download intellectual property from the Internet. The Pirate Bay (thepiratebay.com) is a website created just for that purpose. Movie studios have implemented security procedures to prevent leaks, and these have been moderately successful, but there’s still a problem for the studios.

TorrentFreak, a website that describes itself as “the place where breaking news, BitTorrent and copyright collide,” reported that the leaked screener clearly lists Miss DeGeneres‘ name, right after the opening credits at the one-minute mark. Someone could have edited the screener to implicate Miss DeGeneres, and she might have received it in advance of an appearance by the actor Ben Stiller on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Nevertheless, all circulating copies of the screener point to Miss DeGeneres.

Piracy is not rocket science. Just about everyone knows someone who knows or claims to know how to download illegal films and music from the Internet. TorrentFreak notes that within 24 hours of its release, 250,000 copies were downloaded. Celebrities have been linked to a leaked DVD screener before. In 2011, Howard Stern’s name was on a pirated copy of the Steven Spielberg movie “Super 8.” Deadline Hollywood reported that a screener was sent to “The Howard Stern Show” on Sirius XM and “somehow” found its way online. It’s not clear that anyone was investigated or charged with the crime that it is. We’ll probably hear more about “Walter Mitty” and the DeGeneres fingerprint, with a lot of inside banter, on Oscar night.

It’s a delicious irony that this latest act of high-profile piracy is tagged to the film derived from the James Thurber story of the Walter Mitty character, who makes mischief as he tries to persuade everyone he encounters that he’s something he’s not. The mild-mannered milquetoast is not the fighter pilot, the surgeon or the warrior he imagines himself to be. If Hollywood, the great fantasy factory, is really upset, it should straighten up and learn a little savvy. Jack Valenti, the late chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America, had urged Hollywood to get rid of screeners. The fantasy factory didn’t listen. Piracy is useful to more than merely the pirates. Word of mouth is cheap advertising, and despite its affluence, Hollywood can be cheap. Walter Mitty understood that.

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