Penalties for exhibition of pirated movies?
January 24, 2011 8:07 PM   Subscribe

What would the penalty be for publicly exhibiting a downloaded, pirated copy of a new movie? Not simply in your basement or something, but at an actual movie theater?

I assume there would potentially be additional charges on top of whatever people getting busted for downloading new movies get charged with. Would it make it even worse, legally, if they advertised the fact that they were screening it? Would it be worse if the film weren't out on DVD yet? (I am in the US, and trying to talk some friends out of doing something stupid).
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Would said person be charging an admission fee?
posted by HotPatatta at 8:13 PM on January 24, 2011

Well, there's this.
posted by phunniemee at 8:14 PM on January 24, 2011 [4 favorites]

Aside from whatever fines are statutory, you'll be sued by the copyright holder for $X, where X is some amount more than you have. And you'll lose.
posted by sanko at 8:18 PM on January 24, 2011

I am an attorney, but I am neither your attorney nor your friends' attorney. This is not legal advice.

This is a phenomenally bad idea. The civil and criminal penalties for copyright infringement are huge, and those FBI warnings are not just for show. People do go to jail for this kind of thing. Your friends should talk to a competent attorney in their jurisdiction. They should also think about seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist.
posted by jedicus at 8:29 PM on January 24, 2011 [7 favorites]

The penalty for exhibiting said film would possibly be worse than for simply downloading it - when you factor in the odds of getting caught. It would be way worse if they advertised it (they'd be lucky not to get caught, if it's a Hollywood-sized film and they live in any place with lots of people.)

Sanko's right. This is really stupid, because if they get caught, it would so not be worth the cost. And the odds of getting caught are higher than they think. I know loads of places (bars and restaurants) who paid heavy prices simply for playing ASCAP or BMI-published music without a license (that's most of the music on Earth!) - and the reason they get caught is because there are lots of scouts out there paid simply to check up on this stuff. Advertising an illicit screening of something like "True Grit" or "Black Swan?" Idiotic.

HotPatatta hints at another factor. Risky as it is to begin with, charging admission would be even worse.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:30 PM on January 24, 2011

IANAL. Here is my layman's understanding of the situation:

In most civil suits there are actual damages and punitive damages. In an injury tort, the actual damages are things like cost of medical treatment, loss of income, and the legendary "pain and suffering".

In a copyright suit, actual damages are loss of revenue. If a movie is shown publicly without license, then it would be presumed that everyone who saw it would otherwise have been a paying customer at a legitimate showing of that film (even if they didn't pay for the illicit showing). So, as a first order estimate, you'd take a count of the viewers of the illiicit showing, multiply it by $10 each (or $15, or $20) for the presumed ticket they didn't buy, and the triple that for treble damages.

Oh, and hiring a lawyer to defend against such a suit is also very expensive, even if you win.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:32 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

My son is in the film industry, he's a producer of major films. The studio he is associated with goes to extreme measures to protect their properties.

As stated above, your friends will be sued, and they will lose, and the amount they will lose is more than they can afford.

This is a stupid idea.
posted by HuronBob at 8:34 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

I should add to what's already been said that companies *love* to make these cases expensive. Even if your friends went to court and won (which wouldn't happen) or got very lucky with a small amount to be paid, the legal bills alone would be more than they could likely afford.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:37 PM on January 24, 2011

And consider this aspect: it would be so very easy for people to start pirating movies and charging people to show them in a theater. Therefore the company's lawyers would want to make a big damn example out of anyone caught doing so, to serve as a warning to anyone in the future who might be contemplating it.

This is a terrible idea. I appreciate you trying to talk your friends out of doing it, but if they're really that dumb, maybe they need to learn their lesson the hard way. Like, with jail time.
posted by ErikaB at 8:44 PM on January 24, 2011

In addition to the above, I will note that the movie's "legitimate" availability makes no difference.
posted by endless_forms at 8:54 PM on January 24, 2011

Don't movie theaters usually have agreements / contracts with film distributors? I would think that violating the terms of such a contract would be a big problem, in addition to violating the copyright holder's public performance rights for the work.

Would said person be charging an admission fee?

Connected to this, it's important for people to know that you can't do this with a movie you've rented or bought, not even just in your own home, even if you aren't charging an admission fee. You can't rent a movie at the video store and show it to a bunch of people - not as a private event, not at a children's birthday party for example, and even a teacher can't run a movie for her class if it's for entertainment - a short little clip might be fair use, and Title 17, Section 110 has exemptions for a work being publicly performed that's part of a "systematic course of instruction" but even a teacher can't run a movie for a class on a slow day just for entertainment or recreational purposes.
posted by XMLicious at 9:00 PM on January 24, 2011

I think you get the answer to your question. To add a possible legal alternative, some theaters may be able to arrange a legitimate showing with the proper license. They used to do that in my college town. A one time showing was somewhere in the price of $2-300 and took a few weeks to get pretty much any movie. If it's that recent and digital they may still have a copy and just have to pay a fee to show it. Maybe someone with a little more recent experience in the cinema world can update, or ask at the local theater.
posted by Yorrick at 9:43 PM on January 24, 2011

Argh... I've taken another look for the news story I saw about a copyright infringement case involving a movie at a child's birthday party but I still can't find it. IANAL but I assume that it has to do with the formal definition of what a "public performance" is, which is a specifically enumerated right granted by copyright. (So, it's not that you cannot rent or buy movies to show at birthday parties, it's that you specifically have to license the public performance rights for the work, which renting at a video store or buying a retail copy does not convey.)

Take a look at this, for example: you aren't even supposed to sing "Happy Birthday" without obtaining the rights because it's a copyrighted song.

(Of course, media companies don't want the bad press from suing people over showing the Wiggles at their little kid's birthday party, so I doubt there's much risk to it compared to what's proposed in the OP, but it's still illegal under current law.)
posted by XMLicious at 9:43 PM on January 24, 2011

IANAL either, but this and this are readable enough to get the point across that "worth more than $1000" would be a huge factor in this case, making it eligible for all kinds of beat-down. Other possible factors like willful infringement, private financial gain, and so on would be gravy. Delicious, MPAA-baiting gravy.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:52 PM on January 24, 2011

Personally, I have no problem with people downloading stuff off the Internet that's of copyright questionable origin for personal use, or having a friend over. However, when you're actually trying to make money off of it, then I'm of the opinion that every bad thing you're about to experience you had coming, and more, be it a guy charging admission to watch a screener at a makeshift theater or the douche modding Xboxes and selling games bundled with the modding.
posted by barc0001 at 10:49 PM on January 24, 2011

I'm not a lawyer, but I work in a movie theatre. There's actually a bunch of different issues at play here, and they all spell trouble for your friend. There are penalties, of course, for downloading movies. There are also penalties for showing movies you legally own copies of to groups of people (for profit or not, doesn't matter -- you still have to license the movie). It would be significantly worse if advertised, because that would probably increase attendance, which is how they're going to scale the penalty. It would be significantly worse if the movie wasn't out on DVD yet, because licensing for first-run films is going to be much more expensive. The movie theater in question will be in serious trouble. These penalties run into big dollar amounts. Everything about the situation you've outlined has penalties, and they tend to exacerbate each other.

Look: film licensing for small exhibition is not that expensive. A movie that's out on DVD, being shown to under 1000 people for free -- you'll pay in the ballpark of $300 or less for that. They'll send you a nice clean DVD copy and everything (you have to determine which film distributor is handling that movie, but that's not hard to do). If you're expecting a smaller crowd, that number goes down. If you're school-affiliated in some way, often that number goes down. There really aren't a lot of compelling reasons to do this the illicit way, considering how tremendous the cost would be and how good the concerned agencies are at tracking down violations.
posted by penduluum at 7:53 AM on January 25, 2011

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
My friends have actually paid the rights for this film, but for various reasons they didn't end up actually getting a show-able copy of the film in time for their show, so they want to download it and show it from a laptop. Does having paid the rights make any difference in this situation?
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:41 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

There are penalties, of course, for downloading movies.

Is this actually true, especially in light of this new info from the OP? Have there been cases where people have been charged specifically for downloading a copy of a copyrighted work rather than for reproducing or distributing the work? The thing jedicus linked to above talks about people being busted for digitizing and uploading films, and for example in the Jammie Thomas case weren't the charges something about "making available" the copyrighted songs?

It seems to me like, because the language in copyright statues specifically talks about distributing copies of a work, the uploaders / people hosting shared files being charged with infringing the copyright holder's right of distribution would designate them as the ones making the copy of the work; in which case the downloader is simply receiving a copy that someone else made. And I'd think that it can't be illegal to simply receive a copy of a work, otherwise people couldn't give books and DVDs and things as Christmas gifts.

Not that I'd expect the above armchair reasoning by itself to hold water legally - indeed I can imagine many counter-arguments or mistaken assumptions I might have made; it's just that in reading about these issues quite alot I've never come across a case of someone being charged specifically for downloading, nor have I even read reasoning for what would make the act of downloading itself illegal. I'm sure that media companies want downloading to be illegal, but has that actually been tested or even attempted in a court anywhere?

(Important to note that with many file-sharing programs and protocols like Bittorrent it automatically uploads pieces of the file to other people as you download them, so by using those methods to get a file you would probably be considered to be an uploader.)
posted by XMLicious at 10:36 AM on January 25, 2011

Is this actually true, especially in light of this new info from the OP?

My understanding of how the laws are written is that, yes, while uploading and distributing is what's prosecuted most often, downloading is actually illegal. It's just mostly ignored because it's not profitable to pursue and prosecute individual downloaders. But to my understanding that's not the primary question for OP, so let's shelve that for a minute because —

OP: if your friends have actually paid for the license to show the film, then they're allowed to show the film. The media isn't all that important. We've purchased the license to show a movie, found that the copy we got sent was in crappy shape, gone out to Best Buy and bought our own copy, and showed it. The people that license movies for exhibition (Swank or Criterion, probably) don't really care what you use to show the movie, so long as (1) the quality isn't so crappy that it reflects poorly on them and (2) you paid for it.

I wouldn't publicly announce that you're using a downloaded copy. Because while Swank and Criterion might not care, the MPAA might. But yes, that information changes the question significantly.
posted by penduluum at 11:38 AM on January 25, 2011

Connected to this, it's important for people to know that you can't do this with a movie you've rented or bought, not even just in your own home, even if you aren't charging an admission fee. You can't rent a movie at the video store and show it to a bunch of people - not as a private event, not at a children's birthday party for example

Not that it's relevant to the OP's question, but I'm pretty sure that's incorrect. I believe the birthday party incident you're thinking of is this one, where someone was arrested for filming her sister's birthday party which was being held at a movie theater. Even Swank, which sells public performance licenses, is careful to say that all their licenses apply to exhibitions "outside the home". I'm pretty sure you can't sell tickets to a showing of a movie in your basement, but I would be very surprised indeed if people were being prosecuted for private, non-commercial performances in their own homes, since that's explicitly the license they're buying when they buy the DVD at retail.
posted by hades at 11:51 AM on January 25, 2011

A non-legal consideration: your typical BitTorrented .avi blown up for a theatre-sized screen is going to look like ass.
posted by Zozo at 12:56 PM on January 25, 2011

hades, if you'll note above I said that I didn't think people were being sued for that sort of stuff. I did come across the incident you link to there while I was searching but it's not the one I recall seeing, which as I said was about a child's birthday party; the thing you linked to is about a 29-year-old's birthday party.

Also, are you sure that you're buying an explicit license when you buy a DVD at retail? I have never seen any licensing terms included with a DVD or tape I've bought, though admittedly I haven't bought very many.

I managed to track down a definition of "public performance." Via Google Books, Intellectual Property by Margreth Barrett (2008), p. 147:
B. When a performance is "public":
2. A place where a substantial number of persons outside of the normal circle of a family and its social acquaintances is gathered: A performance is also "public" if a substantial segment of the public that extends beyond a family and its normal circle of social acquaintances is on hand to perceive the performance, either live or via transmission. If this is the case, the size and composition of the audience at the time of the performance is what determines whether the performance is public or not. Even a performance in a private home may be "public" if such a group of people is present. Congress and the courts have not provided any precise numbers to demonstrate how many people must be present. However, the more there are, the more likely it is that the performance is "public." it's a matter of how big the party is, I guess, and who the guests are in relation to you and who they bring along.

In any case, not charging a fee as HotPatatta asked about or holding it in a private home does not automatically get you out of it being an infringing public performance, legally - at least some non-commercial performances in one's own home could be infringing. But as we both pointed out, this isn't the sort of stuff that gets prosecuted - it's a "we reserve the right to screw you" thing.
posted by XMLicious at 1:57 PM on January 25, 2011

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