FBI shines spotlight on film piracy

By Vanessa Van Voorhis | May 17, 2016

LOS ANGELES – Following the pre-release piracy of the film "The Revenant," which equated to an estimated economic loss of more than $1 million for Fox, the FBI is out with renewed warnings to those who upload, download or stream unlicensed content.

“The message we’re trying to get out is that people think they’re not doing anything wrong and our position is that you’re committing a crime,” Supervising Special Agent L.J. Connolly of the Los Angeles bureau of the FBI told the Northern California Record.

Though the unlicensed sharing of copyrighted content is akin to theft, 70 percent of people think it is socially acceptable, according to surveys and studies. Seventy-five percent of computers are said to have some sort of illegally downloaded content. Pornography is pirated most, making up 36 percent of all illegal downloads. Movies come in second at 35 percent and television shows third at 15 percent. 

“We ask the question: What’s the economic damage?" Connelly said. "That number usually comes from the studio. It’s an estimate; however, you’ve got to be aware that we’re talking about millions of dollars.”

It often comes down to one person who uploaded a video, and they are shocked when they are told the amount of economic damage they have caused, Connolly said.

“You say, ‘Well, you owe the studios $25 million or $10 million,’” he said, adding that he is not aware of anyone ever being ordered to pay economic restitution to a studio. “I don’t know that they could.”

Collectively, the economic impact of movie piracy is estimated to be somewhere between $6.1 billion and $20.5 billion per year, various industry reports indicate.

“It’s an economic crime is really what it is," Connolly said. "It affects a lot of people and affects livelihoods. There’s a cause and effect to it. Stand-alone, you would think that it doesn’t really matter. It’s not that big a deal. Who cares if an actor or an actress is going to make $19 million instead of $20 million, right? So it’s not a sympathetic crime."

For films, the most economically vulnerable time is just prior to its box-office release or while it is still in theaters. The closer to the release date in movie theaters that the piracy occurs, the greater the economic impact.

“Think about how much money the first week of the "Star Wars" movie made,” he said. “The movie’s only got a small window to cash in on its product. So let’s say that three-week period, a million people downloaded the movie. Well, the theaters are saying that’s a million people that aren’t going to come into the theaters because they’ve already seen the movie.”

But how do people get ahold of a movie prior to its release in theaters?

With "The Revenant," for example, Fox’s studio mailed a disc of the film to Academy Award members, which include people and organizations in the movie industry who vote on the awards. The advanced copy of the film is called a “screener.”

“What happened with "The Revenant" was it was released as a screener and one of those people got it, and took it and uploaded it before it was released in the movie theaters, and that’s why there’s this huge amount of projected loss at the box office,” Connelly said.

When these screeners are released, there is an expectation from the studios that the movie will not be illegally uploaded to the web or sold.

“People who have access to these screeners typically don’t take them and upload them because it’s sort of an industry culture you’re a part of,” Connolly said. “So there’s some values that you have that everybody sort of adheres to. There’s certain standards that you have as a community that you just don’t break, although some people do.”

Sometimes the crime is committed by a third party, such as a friend of a friend or family member, who obtains the film and uploads it, he explained.

“Let’s say you’re an employee of Studio A and you get the movie and you say, ‘Hey, mom, I want to show you this;’ or to your husband, you say, ‘Let’s watch this,'" Connolly said. "And then you go shopping and he calls two of his friends over and he watches it or your mother’s friends watch it, and then one of them uploads it or puts it on a stick. Before you know it, it’s out there and it’s you, you’re the one that let it leak, but you really didn’t. People leave movies laying around all the time. It’s pretty casual how they treat their properties.”

When a studio discovers a new movie found its way to the web, it contacts law enforcement to initiate an investigation.

“These movies get uploaded to torrent websites; and, fundamentally, what that is is it’s a website that’s connected through a series of servers,” he said. “So one servers will hold like maybe one-third of the movie and another server will hold another third of the movie, and that’s how they get uploaded. They’re file-sharing networks. And so it’s very difficult for us to figure out where the movie has been uploaded to, who has it now and stopping people from grabbing it once it’s in a file system.”

Investigating such crimes requires special technical knowledge and brings with it inherent challenges. Connolly said the bureau does not have a special unit dedicated to cybercrime, but it consults with special outside units.

FBI investigators’ focus revolves around the traditional questions of who did it, how they did it, where is the thing that they took and how they are making money on it.

“Through a series of electronic footprints, so to speak, through cyberspace, we actually follow them right to the person who eventually uploaded it, or we can find the computer that it was uploaded from, and then we make logical deductions and conclusions from where it is,” he said.

By following a computer’s internet protocol address, investigators can learn from where someone logged in to the computer and from where the movie was downloaded.

“We really can’t get to the person, but we can get to the place,” he said. “Getting to the place helps us get to the person. But that’s just old-fashion gumshoe policing. You find out where the crime was committed, and you start asking questions.”

Investigators concentrate their efforts on those who upload movies to sharing sites rather than on those who download or stream them to their computer.

“I can’t say the FBI is going to come after you if you download "Gone with the Wind" and watch it one time; but if you’re selling it out of your car or you uploaded the movie yourself, and you’re the one who did that, yeah, we’ll find you,” Connolly said. “Doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to get caught every time. People break the law all the time and get away with it.”

Still, the downloading and streaming of stolen movies is in itself a crime, he said.

“And that’s what’s important, because there (are) a lot of people that won’t commit a crime only because they know they’re committing a crime," he said. "That’s what makes them honest. What’s that saying? Character can only be judged when no one is looking."

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