Last summer I met Ellen Seidler, an independent filmmaker based in northern California. She and a partner had spent $250,000 of their own money to make a lesbian romantic comedy called And Then Came Lola. I did a story about her fight to get pirated copies of the film taken off of the Web, including removal from sites that often featured ads by major companies like Google.
I was reminded of Seidler on Friday when a Swedish court upheld the conviction against the founders of Pirate Bay, perhaps the most notorious file-sharing website. I still have an emotionally charged e-mail exchange between Seidler and a supporter of Pirate Bay that never made it to the air or into print. This seems like a good time to make it public.
Pirate Bay has been the bane of the Hollywood entertainment industry. Its founders aren't just a bunch of kids who want free entertainment. They believe that the current system of copyright laws is broken and that people have every right to freely share copies of songs, television and movies.
They are also at the forefront of a Swedish political party that shares those views. Pirate Bay is part of the Pirate Party's political agenda.
When I reported on Seidler’s struggles over the summer, she gave me an e-mail exchange that never got mentioned in my story. But it's been stuck in my head every since. Now that the founders of Pirate Bay are ready to appeal their case to Sweden’s Supreme Court, this struck me as a good time to share this e-mail.
Seidler was attempting to get the attention of whoever was running Pirate Bay at the time, and another site that connected to them called novamov.com. She never got through to Pirate Bay or Novamov directly. But she did reach Sven Olaf Kamphius, who runs Cyberbunker.com.
It’s a web hosting service inside a former NATO bunker in the Netherlands that was hosting Pirate Bay and several similar websites. Seidler’s legal notice to Novamov to take down her copyrighted film reached Kamphius and he responded.
Kamphuis’s e-mail comes out strongly against any kind of copyright protection. He dismissed Seidler’s references to United States copyright law by saying:
“ ... the laws of that retarded ex-colony cannot be enforced here, thank god;).”
Seidler tried to explain that she doesn’t have a battalion of high-paid lawyers helping her fight copyright violations:
“I am an independent filmmaker who has put her life savings into a project and now see it uploaded illegally on the Web before the DVD is even released.”
But Kamphuis repsonded as if she was a lawyer representing a large client:
“i'd suggest your clients just fix their own business model and find a way to make money on their productions which doesn't involve bugging everyone else to get other people to remove stuff for them.
You, nor your clients, pay us for our time, and our time is worth more than lousy entertainment anyway.”
Kamphuis actually threatened Seidler with legal action for “spamming” him:
“Simular organisations like yours try to infringe on OUR rights by wasting our time (yes, immunity from liability also includes not having to waste my man hours or the ones of my attorneys on this without financial compensation, now where do we send the bill for answering this email ? ;)
Should there be any further questions, I'm quite sure I can get our shiney attorney firm, to make things clear to you, like they are doing against some other movie firms at this moment already (Don't you worry about that ;)”
It sounds as he thinks he is addressing a big Hollywood operation, not an independent artist.
There are many good arguments to be made for reform of copyright laws. Copyrights are thought by many observers to last too long, stifling creativity by keeping works out of the public domain. But the people behind the Pirate Bay, and their supporters, clearly don’t think that any kind of copyright laws are justified.
As for Ellen Seidler, after she realized that Kamphuis didn’t really care that she was an independent filmmaker, she didn’t bother to respond to him again.
Seidler has since gotten involved in the fight to help protect filmmakers against piracy. Recently, she had an editorial in Roll Call supporting anti-piracy legislation. Seidler says that the response to her concerns hasn't always been polite.
Seidler says And Then Came Lola will be her last film because she simply can't afford to lose that kind of money. But she says she doesn't want this to be about her.
What concerns Seidler most is that other independent artists will make the same choice if they can't find a way to at least recoup their expenses. She worries that the only people who will be able to afford to make movies will be working for Disney, Warner Brothers, Fox or another major corporation.