When Tim Davis got caught trading songs, it made him semifamous. Davis, an artist who teaches photography at Yale, was sued by the Recording Industry Association of America last September and was featured in news articles around the world.
Since then, he has made his plight a public cause to help recoup the $10,000 he spent on his legal defense and to settle the lawsuit. He sold "Free Timmy" T-shirts and held a fund-raising party at his studio. Visitors to his Web site, davistim.com, can leave a donation in an online "tip jar." The lawsuit, he said, is "an insane kind of disproportionate response" to his musical sins.
Then there is Jeff, who trades movies online. Jeff, who lives in New York and discussed his situation only on the condition that his full name not be used, received a letter from his cable company explaining that New Line Cinema had found a copy of "Freddy vs. Jason" available for sharing through his Internet account. The letter noted that the movie industry did not know his identity but could go to court to discover it and might eventually sue him. "It gave me a little scare," he said.
There are many more music traders than movie traders, but there are many more Jeffs than Tims these days. While the recording industry has made headlines with a few hundred lawsuits, the movie industry has been sending out hundreds of thousands of threatening notices via e-mail messages each week to the people who make its products available on the Internet.
The music industry's approach has contributed to a decline in downloading but has also produced a powerful public backlash, angering millions of its customers. That is one reason, among others, that Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, said that his industry would not be following the music companies' path any time soon.
"I'm not ruling out anything, but at this moment we don't have any specific plans to sue anyone," Valenti said. "I think we have learned from the music industry."
A gentler threat
The gentler threat works, said Mark Ishikawa, the chief executive of BayTSP, a company that helps the industry track down file sharers by scanning the Internet for movies and issuing the e-mail notices automatically. Fully 85 percent of those contacted "do not come back," Ishikawa said. "We never see them again," with no headlines and no public relations blowups.
"The movie studios," he said, "are trying to prevent themselves from becoming the next music industry."
But executives at the technology companies that serve both industries say that the movie industry, while avoiding some of the record industry's pitfalls, has not yet made enough progress on other fronts to head off a Napster-like disaster.
The different approaches to the problem of copyright infringement, they say, are--more than anything else--about timing.
The music industry is pursuing a late, desperate, rear-guard action against an army of tens of millions of downloaders. Meanwhile, legitimate online alternatives to file trading are only now becoming established. The movie industry, by comparison, estimates that it has at least 18 months before high-speed Internet access and high-capacity hard drives make grabbing a movie almost as quick and easy as grabbing a song.
Valenti says Hollywood is doing everything it can to get ahead of the coming storm. Along with the warning letters, the movie industry is paying for consumer education programs and technology research, and pushing for laws and regulations that executives hope will protect their wares. At the industry's urging, for example, California recently passed a law making it illegal to use a camcorder in a movie theater.
Yet experts in digital technology say Hollywood is fooling itself if it believes that its current steps will be enough, or even that they will take the industry in the right direction.
Gary Johnson, the chief executive of PortalPlayer, a company that makes the technology that helps consumer products like Apple Computer's iPod play music within the boundaries of licensing agreements and copyright law, was particularly blunt.
"We're not sure the lessons that were learned in the music industry have been picked up yet" in the world of video, he said.
The most important thing for Hollywood to do now, Johnson said, is to move faster to develop the kinds of licensing agreements and protective technology that can make digital video services easy to use and worth paying for.
Michael Maia, the vice president for sales and marketing for PortalPlayer, said: "It's all about the rights."
Send lawyers, tools and money
In other words, the biggest challenge for the video industry lies not with pirates, but with bytes, cash and lawyers.
What the industry needs, technology executives say, is to look harder for tools and contracts that allow people to get the movies they want at a competitive price, rather than concentrate on actions that restrict access.
"The film industry has a tremendous opportunity in front of it, and the bar is very low," said Eric Garland, chief executive of BigChampagne, a company that tracks file-trading activity for the entertainment industries.
Movie companies can prevent the free swapping of their wares from mushrooming into a mass phenomenon, Garland said, by offering easy-to-use services with broad selection that will shape the consumer experience, instead of trying to change bad behavior after the fact.
The movie industry, he said, has to ask itself what the music industry should have asked years ago: "Why do they want to steal from us?" The answer, he said, is simple: "Because you won't sell them what they want." The technologists say that what went wrong with the music industry can easily go wrong for movie companies, too.
Steve Perlman, a longtime executive in the technology industry who co-founded WebTV, said that because music companies had resisted online trends and did not make their wares readily available, "a pirate way of accessing content became the best way of accessing content."
People seeking a legitimate way to download music found nothing much, while Napster and its offspring became magical jukeboxes in cyberspace that offered every conceivable song. "They've got to make it so the best choice is legitimate content," Perlman said.
When a movie first appears, illicit copies show up online for the taking almost instantly. "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,'' which was released on Dec. 17, is already available on several peer-to-peer services. Many videos, though, are poor-quality copies made by people who bring camcorders to a theater.
Most of the higher-quality copies come from within the industry, often copied from "screener" discs sent out during the annual awards season.
Current attempts to sell movies online, like the industry-sponsored Movielink, are still limited in selection and ease of use. But Valenti, the movie industry's powerful lobbyist in Washington, said the problems were temporary.
"We're experimenting with all of this," he said. "This isn't anything that is a finished game." Technology and selection will improve, he pledged. "There's no expectation of keeping these films in a vault."
The path to a successful service has to involve the kind of technology that protects copyright unobtrusively, said Paul Kocher, president of Cryptography Research. Kocher, whose San Francisco company helps clients in the cable and satellite industries foil piracy, said that hard-to-design but simple-to-use technologies could solve problems that might otherwise seem intractable.
"In the end, if people are stealing your stuff," Kocher said, "the technology has failed." Hand in hand with developing legal digital services, he recommends the kind of tough security that is built into satellite television equipment, so that the companies "make it not worth stealing" because the bar has been raised too high.
A cable thief, said Josh Bernoff, a principal analyst at Forrester Research, "can't say, 'I didn't realize it was wrong to climb up a pole, connect a wire, run it to my home and hook it up to my TV.' "
The costs of adopting the wrong strategy will be high. Jeff, the movie swapper, says that despite his scare he has not changed his ways. He has gone deeper underground instead, renaming files so that movie titles would not be as easy to find with industry search software, he said. (Ishikawa of BayTSP said that the strategy would not work against his service, however.)
Jeff also says that he does not make his own trove of movies available to the world as readily. "I just watch them and delete them instead of leaving it out there," he said. "I don't leave the network on 24 hours a day the way I used to."
But Davis, the former song trader, has changed his habits. He dusted off his turntable, bought a new needle and started haunting the bargain vinyl bins in junk shops, where he has discovered some treasures for a dollar a record.
"I'm really very excited about it,'' he said, "because there isn't much new to buy out there, is there?" CNET News