MPAA admits to unauthorized movie copying

1/24/2006 11:52:04 AM, by Eric Bangeman

What happens when an organization that is best known for inveighing against
the unauthorized copying of movies gets caught doing exactly that? The
Motion Picture Association of America was caught with its pants down,
admitting to making unauthorized copies of the documentary This Film Is Not
Yet Rated in advance of this week's Sundance Film Festival.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated looks at the motion picture ratings system
created and run by the MPAA. Director Kirby Dick submitted the film for
rating in November. After receiving the movie, the MPAA subsequently made
copies without Dick's permission. Dick had specifically requested in an
e-mail that the MPAA not make copies of the movie. The MPAA responded by
saying that "the confidentiality of your film is our first priority."

Dick later learned that the MPAA made copies of the film to distribute them
to its employees, despite the MPAA's stance on unauthorized copying. Ah,
there's nothing like the smell of hypocrisy in the morning-apparently the
prohibition against copying films without the copyright owner's consent
doesn't apply to the MPAA. A lawyer for the MPAA justified the
organization's apparent hypocrisy by saying that Dick had invaded the
privacy of some MPAA staffers, which justified the MPAA's actions.

    "We made a copy of Kirby's movie because it had implications for our
employees," said Kori Bernards, the MPAA's vice president for corporate
communications. She said Dick spied on the members of the MPAA's
Classification and Rating Administration, including going through their
garbage and following them as they drove their children to school.

A little background: This Film looks at how the rating system functions,
specifically at how some types of content are treated differently by the
MPAA. Dick feels that the MPAA is full of‹surprise‹double standards,
especially when it comes to how they treat graphic violence vs. sexual
content, heterosexual vs. homosexual sex, and big-studio vs. independent
films.  As part of the documentary's creation, Dick trailed and identified
some of the previously anonymous members of the ratings board. Dick's
conduct became a cause for concern for both the MPAA and its employees,
leading to their calling the police on some occasions.

According to Mark Lemley, a professor at the Stanford Law School, the MPAA
may have been within its rights to make copies of the film. Given that the
MPAA's intent isn't financial gain and that the whole situation may rise
above the level of trading barbs through the media into legal action, making
a copy may be justified. Personally, I can't see any justification for an
organization such as the MPAA ignoring a directive from a copyright owner,
but IANAL. A "digital version" of the movie was submitted for screening,
according to Dick's attorney, Michael Donaldson. If that digital version
turns out to be a DVD, the MPAA could also find itself in hot water for
violating the DMCA. Oh, the irony! Either way, the MPAA can't be happy about
being put into a position where they are forced to justify the same actions
they decry when undertaken by a consumer.

It's difficult to see how This Film Is Not Yet Rated‹which ended up with an
NC-17 rating for graphic sexual content‹is being harmed. If nothing else,
Dick is reaping a bountiful crop of free publicity on the eve of the
Sundance Film Festival. The MPAA's decision to make copies of the film
without the copyright-holder's permission reinforces the documentary's
message that the MPAA's actions often reek of self-interest and hypocrisy.

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