Following a recent episode of The Simpsons titled ‘Steal This Episode’, which illustrated just how over the top copyright infringement enforcement has become, one might have thought that media giant FOX was taking a step in the right direction when it comes to the subject of piracy. Unfortunately, it is clear that the business heads at FOX share few philosophies with their writers, as they have just sued a 23 year old Canadian man for $10.5 million after he offered a web service that streamed episodes of the Simpsons for free to international users who did not have access to them.
The episode, written by veteran writer and producer J. Stewart Burns, started out by demonstrating what the experience of going to the cinema has become. When Homer takes his family to see a new ‘Radioactive man’ film, the first blow is the ridiculously high cost of admission. Then, once in the theater, Homer is subjected to people talking, texting, and the final nail in the coffin – in-movie advertising. At this point he exclaims, ‘If I wanted to pay for commercials I can’t skip I’d sign up for Hulu Plus’ (which interestingly enough is one of the only places where you can legally watch streaming episodes of The Simpsons).
The episode goes on to see Homer create ‘Cinema Piratediso’, a backyard cinema which shows illegally downloaded movies. The FBI is quickly informed after Marge tries to ease her conscience by writing a bank cheque, valued at the price of a movie ticket, to the “dreamer for a living” that made the film. The Simpsons briefly take refuge in the Swedish consulate, before entering a court case with the Hollywood big-shots. When the big-shots see that Homer is an underdog in all of this, they immediately drop all of the charges and buy the rights to turn his story into a film. As the FBI agent then explains to Lisa, ‘Hollywood may be run by big corporations trying to squash people, but they make movies about people standing up to big corporations trying to squash them, and winning.’
Despite the tone of this episode, in October 2013 FOX moved in on a Canadian man running the website WatchTheSimpsonsOnline.com. The man, known publicly only as ‘Nick’, had been running the site since 2008. It contained embedded video links of every Simpsons episode to date, offering free viewing to anyone with an internet connection.
Nick claimed that the reason for running the site was largely due to the lack of international availability of Simpsons episodes. Streaming was largely unavailable without using VPNs or Proxies, and even the more expensive option of buying DVDs was not possible because up-to-date episodes where not available in that format. The site was making some money off ad revenue, but it is debatable whether it could be considered a for-profit entity, as it’s highly likely that the ad revenue merely offset the server costs.
FOX got a court order to go to the man’s house and confiscate all of his electronic devices, the data on which was presumably cloned before being returned. The site was taken down and replaced with links redirecting users to FOX.com and Hulu plus, both of which are unavailable outside the US (except through the sue of VPN and the like), after which Nick was offered the opportunity to ‘settle’ the affair with an impossible payment of $1 million dollars. Nick is just an average guy with more debt than capitol, so when he was unable to pay, FOX went forward and pushed for damages of $10.5 million dollars.
As to why they thought they would be able to get such an obscene amount, after Nick was unable to pay the $1 million, raises the question of whether this was an exercise in offsetting damages, or just purely in making an example out of someone by flexing corporate muscle. This is certainly not the first time FOX has used this tactic, as in 2010 struggling screenwriter, caregiver and single mother, P.J. McIlvaine, suffered similar treatment. She was running a website which offered the free downloads of PDF copies of screenplays as learning tools for other aspiring writers. FOX took her to court, demanding $150,000 in reparations, per script – totaling $12 million dollars.
Among the reasons stated by FOX was that it was important viewers would not have the story spoiled before watching the film, although they failed to mention that some of the screenplays were 30 years old, and that reading a screenplay actually takes just as long as watching the film itself. This leads one to wonder if Nick is just another ‘head on a pike’ for FOX to parade around. Despite FOX’s efforts, a quick Google search indicates that there are still plenty of similar streaming sites available.
Interestingly, simply linking to pirated material does not in itself constitute copyright infringement under Canadian law, which also, under the updated Canadian Copyright Act , caps all claims against non-commercial entities at $5000. So how did FOX manage to extort such high damages against this unfortunate individual? It’s a good question, and makes us wonder about the extent of the media industry’s lobbying tactics on the Canadian government.
Perhaps instead of focusing on squashing competition, FOX could work towards beating it? They could start by making the content more widely available and more affordable internationally. Big companies seem to be perpetually shooting themselves in the foot in their battle against piracy, and are trying primarily to enforce their restrictive business model using bullying tactics. If instead of fueling the ‘us versus them’ mentality that is so widely prevalent today, and actually creating great services for everyone, they could eliminate the need for piracy, making everyone a lot happier.
In the meantime, those living outside the US can opt for legally ‘grey’ solutions, such as steaming Netflix or Hulu through a VPN, or can go all out and illegally download episodes via P2P, neither of which anyone would regard as ideal solutions (and if you do choose to take the P2P route, don’t forget to use VPN if you wish to avoid becoming another ‘head on a pike’!).