Hollywood Confronts Film Pirates on the Web

A record number of people are watching feature-length movies on their computers. That makes Hollywood nervous, as it faces consumers with faster Internet connections, larger hard drives and an increase in film pirating.

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Makers of movies and TV programs are reaching the same point that the music industry reached some time ago. It's the point where they are seriously concerned about online piracy. Billions of songs were illegally downloaded each year, so it's no surprise that videos have followed.

NPR's Laura Sydell begins our report online.

LAURA SYDELL: If you want to watch "Borat" - the mockumentary starring Sacha Baron Cohen - you can pay $8 to $11 at a movie theater, or you can watch it for free on the Web site picvid.com. All you have to do is find the movie on the list, click, and let it stream.

(Soundbite of movie, "Borat")

Unidentified Man: Now, one of the things that you've enjoyed so much about...

Mr. SACHA BARON COHEN (Actor): (As Borat) Can I have the microphone, so people can hear me?

Unidentified Man: They can hear you right now.

Mr. COHEN: (As Borat) Oh.

Unidentified Man: You are mic'ed up. This little thing right here - that's the microphone. Why (unintelligible)...

Mr. COHEN: Hello. Hello, nice to meet you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SYDELL: While you may save yourself some money, you're taking it right out of the pockets of filmmakers, says John Malcolm. He's an executive vice president of the Motion Pictures Association of America, or MPAA, which monitors sites like picvid that offer up pirated material.

Mr. JOHN MALCOLM (Executive Vice President, MPAA): They're not creating their own content. They're distributing the content of others without having any rights to do so whatsoever. And they're making a lot of money doing it.

SYDELL: Picvid is a portal that links to other sites around the Internet where A-list movies can be found. It appears to make money selling banner advertising. Picvid didn't respond to NPR's e-mails.

The site offers streams of the most recent episodes of television programs like "24" and "Lost." Malcolm, of the MPAA, says like a lot of similar sites, picvid appears to be based outside of the U.S. Still, the MPAA could close it down.

Mr. MALCOLM: There are laws in the countries where a lot these sites operate. We have a pretty good idea where the operators of picvid are.

SYDELL: But Malcolm admits that closing down picvid will not stop the problem, and there are sites in countries like Iran which don't adhere to international copyright laws. Over the last year, the number of Web sites offering pirated content has grown more than in any other year, says Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne.

His company monitors online media. He says more computer storage and a growing number of people with high-speed Internet service are making it easier for people to download video.

Mr. ERIC GARLAND (CEO, Big Champagne): All of those factors conspire and create sort of a perfect storm for Hollywood in that it's now just as easy to download a television show as it was five or seven years ago to download a popular song.

SYDELL: Film and television industry officials could try to get individual Internet service providers to block specific sites, says Mark Lemley, a professor of law at Stanford University. But he says it's a somewhat untested and problematic strategy, because they could overreach.

Professor MARK LEMLEY (Law, Stanford University): They're likely to shut down a bunch of clearly infringing material, but they've also gone after people who write Harry Potter book reports because they have files with Harry Potter up on their site.

SYDELL: But making big blockbuster movies is expensive. It cost George Lucas $113 million to make "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith." Yet, a pirated version of that film appeared online before it opened in theaters. Lucas told NPR that fans who watch pirated movies rather than paying to see them were spiting the hand that feeds them great entertainment.

Mr. GEORGE LUCAS (Film Director): If they don't solve this problem of how they sell over the Internet, the business will shrink down and the kind of movies that are getting made will be like TV movies. They'll be very small, and there won't very many of them.

SYDELL: The movie industry is trying to make legal downloads available so that fans have a legitimate alternative to getting pirated movies online. However, the existence of iTunes and other online music services hasn't stemmed the tide of illegal music downloads, and that's a fact that's bound to make Hollywood executives nervous.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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