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"An obscure world of celluloid intrigue"
May 9, 2012 1:02 PM   Subscribe

"At a time when most old films were still protected by copyright and studios were urging the FBI to prosecute individuals owning copyrighted films, movie collecting was a largely underground and somewhat dangerous activity." In 1977, for example, a 20 year old film collector was visited by the FBI. The agents, posing as fellow collectors, entered his home and seized his collection. His case wasn't unique. Even the stars — most famously, Roddy McDowall — were subject to the legal wrath of the very studios they worked for. Still, some collectors got away with it (including one J. D. Salinger).

Though the FBI raids still haunt the collective memory of the hobby, the world has become much safer for film collectors, perhaps because the industry realized — as early as the late '70s — that "as tape and other systems of recording proliferate, film companies will gradually lose control over their product". Today, celebrity collectors like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese are known publicly as such (and non-celebrity collectors with colorful personalities get profiled by The Guardian). Collector-oriented festivals like Cinecon, Cinevent, Cinesation, and Cinefest are thriving. Film archivists — notably, Harvard Film Archive, home of the Doc Burr Collection — are interested in them. And some young collectors [previously] have styled themselves as archivists, complete with home preservation projects [previously]. And of course, they're all over the internet, showing off their collections on YouTube, posting pictures of their sweet set-ups, writing how-to websites, and buying and selling on Ebay and assorted private forums.
posted by bubukaba (16 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
I thought the first sale doctrine (i.e., you buy a legitimate copy of a copyrighted work you can do whatever non-profit activity you want with it) would have applied here. Does anybody here know the intellectual property law well enough to know what was going on with those FBI raids in the 70s?
posted by jonp72 at 1:21 PM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ahh, the good old days, when stealing a movie actually meant stealing the film reels that contained the movie. Kids nowadays with their newfangled bits and torrents don't know how good they have it!
posted by ymgve at 1:22 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


jonp72, when I was researching this post, I found this fantastic article from the Cleveland State Law Review. (It's not fully accessible online, so I didn't want to include it in the FPP). The author, Francis M. Nevins, Jr., seems to be one of the only people to have written about the actual law behind the FBI raids.

Apparently there were two big issues making things complicated. One was that the studios were arguing that any copy of a film in private hands was pirated, even though there were several ways that films might have legally made their way into the hands of the public (including sales of film prints to the public by the studios themselves!) The other was that there were actual film pirates duping films in bathtubs or whatever — and the studios etc wished to argue that anyone who had films at home had likely acquired them that way rather than legitimately.
posted by bubukaba at 1:28 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


jonp72, I believe the film studios were leasing the films to distributors for public performance but not for sale. The only way to legally buy a film from the rights holder was when they made a 16 mm "show at home" version.
posted by hyperizer at 1:32 PM on May 9, 2012


I thought the first sale doctrine (i.e., you buy a legitimate copy of a copyrighted work you can do whatever non-profit activity you want with it) would have applied here. Does anybody here know the intellectual property law well enough to know what was going on with those FBI raids in the 70s?
I'm guessing the studios never gave up physical ownership of the celluloid. Theaters might just have been renting them. But in that case, the films would be stolen physical property, not just copyright infringement. Those films were actually fairly expensive physical objects themselves.

On the other hand, you could still make a copy of a print, but that copy would be a copyright violation. So I'm guessing any films at the time might have been illicit copies or stolen.

---
Also, the issue of piracy and collection is actually really relevant to today's world.

There was a thread recently about some new DRM scheme. Someone had a big movie collection, and he was worried that all the disks he'd been stacking up over the years might no longer even work due to hair-brained DRM schemes.

I pointed out that I thought the DRM stuff wasn't even really about preventing piracy, since it doesn't work at all. Rather, it's really about putting people on a forced upgrade path and making them re-buy all their favorite movies. Because if you can't copy then you can't transcode to a new format.

Like, even if your old VHS tapes still work, do you know where your old VCR is? And if you had it, does your HDTV even have RCA inputs? Modern TVs might not even have NTSC demodulators so your RF adapter wouldn't work either.

So what do you do? Either become an electronics antiques expert, or just rebuy your shit on blue-ray. So 10 years from now will you have any way to play your BlueRays on some crazy cloud based system (Like this horrible "Ultra Violet" system - to play them on your 4k screen with no local inputs at all? Do you mail them in to be uploaded? It's entirely possible that actual "movie collection" might become impossible to do legally if you want it to last more then a few years or so.

On the other hand, if you pirate well. I went back through my backup folders of backup folders of backup folders and found some old AVIs I'd download years ago (probably off my campus LAN)

VLC opened them and played them with no problem at all.

It's supposedly legal to make backup copies of your media. If people don't want to pirate, they should definitely look into do that. Your DRM-stripped digital copy will probably be playable for a longer then your physical disks (or, god-forbid studio hosted 'cloud' copies)

Plus, why put up with non-skippable ads?
posted by delmoi at 2:00 PM on May 9, 2012 [12 favorites]


It's supposedly legal to make backup copies of your media. If people don't want to pirate, they should definitely look into do that. Your DRM-stripped digital copy will probably be playable for a longer then your physical disks (or, god-forbid studio hosted 'cloud' copies)

I've always heard that there's nothing illegal about making backup copies for personal use, but I've also heard that thanks to the DMCA, it's illegal to crack any form of copy protection. Since every movie you'll buy these days has some form copy protection, you can't make a backup without violating the DMCA.
posted by arcolz at 2:25 PM on May 9, 2012


One was that the studios were arguing that any copy of a film in private hands was pirated, even though there were several ways that films might have legally made their way into the hands of the public (including sales of film prints to the public by the studios themselves!) The other was that there were actual film pirates duping films in bathtubs or whatever — and the studios etc wished to argue that anyone who had films at home had likely acquired them that way rather than legitimately.


Wow. There are a few assumptions going on there and yet they still get the FBI to do their dirty work. "Possession" is not one of the protected activities of copyright. So unless you are in possession of stolen property (as in physical property as opposed to intellectual property, like a reel stolen from a movie house etc.) then possession of say a film discarded by a TV station should not be actionable. The law does address bootlegs and possession with intent to sell (I am not up on these details) can be criminal under state and federal laws I believe. That seems to be the theory here and yet the studios take the incredible position that all films privately possessed are bootlegs rather than a legitimate copy made by the studio. Who would have thought it? ;)

Anyway, great post.
posted by caddis at 2:36 PM on May 9, 2012


arcolz: "I've always heard that there's nothing illegal about making backup copies for personal use, but I've also heard that thanks to the DMCA, it's illegal to crack any form of copy protection."

The DMCA statutes only apply in the US. Just get a friend with a boat, sail out to international waters, and rip away. You can even smoke some pot while you're at it.
posted by mullingitover at 2:48 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's supposedly legal to make backup copies of your media.

This is one of the reasons why content producers and resellers are trying to move to the sale of licenses rather than the sale of media. If you buy a book from Amazon you're actually purchasing a license to read the book using their system, not a "copy" of the book. Your license to read the book does not include the right to make a backup copy of it.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:04 PM on May 9, 2012


Er, a book on the Kindle that is, not a regular book. As far as I know those are still proper sales.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:15 PM on May 9, 2012


It seems that Roddy McDowall wasn't just an ape, he was a rat too.
posted by Splunge at 3:29 PM on May 9, 2012


Good news, everyone! If you are a law-abiding purchaser of DVDs, the FBI, DHS, and MPAA have come together to punish you with even more obnoxious anti-skippable anti-piracy notices.
posted by dirigibleman at 3:38 PM on May 9, 2012


I've always heard that there's nothing illegal about making backup copies for personal use, but I've also heard that thanks to the DMCA, it's illegal to crack any form of copy protection.
It's not illegal to remove DRM, it's against the law to distribute a tool to do so. There is nothing illegal about downloading and using them.
posted by delmoi at 4:14 PM on May 9, 2012


I think the DMCA criminalized both the dissemination of tools and the use of them, delmoi (regardless of whether any copyright infringement occurs).
posted by hattifattener at 1:12 AM on May 10, 2012


Problem: Since every movie you'll buy these days has some form copy protection, you can't make a backup without violating the DMCA.

Solution: Just back up your pirated movies and toss out the originals.

Voila!
posted by chavenet at 2:10 AM on May 10, 2012


Had no idea about Salinger and really enjoyed that link.
posted by spinchange at 6:43 AM on May 10, 2012


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