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“This is Why I Pirate”: How A Groundless Copyright Threat Destroyed A Young Film Student’s Dreams and Career

From a post at reddit, a heartbreaking story of a grad student’s career destroyed by the mere threat of a copyright lawsuit from Fox even though he had a license from Isaac Asimov’s wife. This is one reason that, although I oppose a “loser pays” rule (see Is “Loser Pays” Libertarian? and Gizmodo: The US Patent System Is Killing Innovation), I would favor a “losing patent/copyright plaintiff pays” rule. As I proposed in Reducing the Cost of IP Law: “In the US system, a victorious defendant in a patent-infringement lawsuit usually still pays for his legal defense, which may run in the millions of dollars. The system should be changed so that a patentee who loses an infringement suit must pay the defendant’s legal and other costs. The IPO recently proposed a loser-pays approach, but in my view, the defendant should never have to pay the fees of the patentee, since the defendant did not instigate the suit.” The same goes for copyright defendants.

Copyright and patent are evil. Shame on people who support them. (h/t Keith Worrell)

This is Why I Pirate (self.SOPA)

submitted ago by capt_wink_martindale

As a film student in early 2001, I was a juggernaut. I was making a lot of short films that were garnering moderate acclaim, and I was always pushing ahead, making bigger and bigger projects. For my senior thesis, I wanted to base it on a short story by Isaac Asimov, which was part of the compilation that made up the book “I, Robot”. Isaac had died a few years previous, but after a lot of badgering to the publishers, I was finally awarded with the home phone number of his wife, Janet.

I figured that the number I was given was just another publishing associate, so I dialed with thinly veiled skepticism. To my surprise, the voice that answered was a feeble, elderly woman. I struggled through my initial shock to explain that I was a student; I wanted to use her husband’s story as a basis for my project, and could I get her permission. She said that it sounded like fun, and gave me the number of the estate attorney, so I could get a written form that gave me the go-ahead. I called, I got permission, and they faxed the form to my professor’s office.

2 weeks later, 30 people showed up to help build sets, sew costumes, and make a little bit of history. Sadly, I let them all down.

In our last week of shooting, 3 months after I received written consent to use the short story, one of the crew brought in a copy of Variety, which mentioned that FOX purchased the book rights to I, Robot, and planned to make a film. Initially, I thought, “Awesome – free promotion!” Alas, that’s not what was looming on the horizon.

Part of the project was to make posters, trailers, and a website for the film. We even went so far as to create our own production company, as to look professional. Somehow the legal team from Fox found out about a student project, in Indiana, with no budget, being shot in a warehouse basement, and decided to issue a cease and desist order. Basically, what that means, is that Fox’s lawyers said to us, “You’re using our property. Stop, or we’ll sue you into the stone age.” I responded by sending them the consent form from the Asimov estate, and explained that it was a student project, not a commercial venture worth litigating. I turned over our script, our shooting notes, our shot list, copies of our tapes and even the concept art drawings.

Instead of the letter recognizing our valiant efforts as students that I expected, I found myself on the tail end of a phone call that changed my life. I was contacted directly by the lead of Fox’s legal team, who explained my situation to me very clearly. He told me that I was technically in my legal right to use Isaac Asimov’s material. However, if I chose to proceed, they would file multiple lawsuits totaling over 2 million dollars against me. In the end, I might win, but it would take hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees just to fight it, but it would cost Fox nothing. It would be 10 years before any type of verdict could be levied, and by then it wouldn’t even matter.

I was 22. I was working 2 jobs, making about $9 an hour, in addition to attending school. I had taken out every student loan I could get to finance my film, which totaled about $10,000 in debt. I had spent my last dollar to buy breakfast for the crew on the last day of shooting. I was properly fucked. I caved.

In the end, my professors had sympathy on me. They had visited the set, seen the dailies, and recognized my talent and dedication. I graduated with honors, without ever turning in a senior thesis project. I guess that they assumed I had learned the most valuable of all life lessons.

Looking back, I can recognize that the lawyers were only doing their job. The same applies for the tank drivers in Tienanmen Square. The busboys on the Titanic. The janitors at Auschwitz.

To Fox, I was only worth a couple of hours of an intern’s time, and a 10 minute phone call. To me, they completely pulled the rug out from underneath the career that I’d been trying to carve out for myself. Without a thesis project, I couldn’t apply to grad schools, and by the time I’d recuperated from the costs I’d incurred, I’d already been forced to accept a different career path, and rearranged my life to fit. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a fairly successful career designing web sites for major entities, and I make a decent living. I was willing to pick up and start over, but I can’t help but harbor resentment for having my wings clipped so early, and so unjustly.

My story is not unique, nor is it very interesting. I’m one of many that have had a short end of the stick handed to them by a big faceless monster, and I feel that it’s my right and responsibility to take that short bit and fight back. One download at a time.

I get to watch the studios systematically destroy the art of film. One download at a time.

I get to defy the system in my own petty way. One download at a time.

I want to watch it burn. One download at a time.

***edit – I still have the exterior production model in my attic. This will give some idea as to the scale and quality that we shot. It’s about 6 feet long: http://imgur.com/a/NOTyU#0

Here’s a clip from the film (keep in mind that it was editing from 640×480 daily reels, ten years ago): http://youtu.be/M6j8dtHaokg

(There’s a lot blacked out, since I had to cut all the title stuff, names, etc…)


{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Crosbie Fitch February 15, 2012, 8:01 am

    The trick is to make the movie anyway and distribute it via BitTorrent/PirateBay, etc.

    It would set an interesting precedent to sue an author, as opposed to a manufacturer/distributor of copies.

  • Mitch Daniels Law Breaker February 15, 2012, 10:33 am

    I am a New Media student here in The State of Indiana, outside of that I was fired from my job in the welfare office, “coincidentally” after I complained to the Regional Manager, Kim Teska, under Govenor Mitch Daniels, about the many illegal problems in their new “Hybrid” rollout for their welfare system, I was “let go” coincidentally, on the last business day before Federal Inspectors from the USDA were coming to inspect our office to make sure everything was going legally. Honesty & Ethics : not a good thing if you want to get far in Government I guess. To get to my point: I filed “Sunshine Act” requests which is like an FOIA request to the state government. I never got a response of anykind, which is illegal, by law they have to tell you why they aren’t sending you the info, and who made that decision so you can follow up. I spoke to a Lawyer, she said “Yes, what they did was against the law but forget the lawsuit, It will take you years and thousands of dollars to pursue this.” What!? How is it that our legal system has gotten to this point? It should be fairly easy to legally conclude, in my case or the author’s case that we are in the right! I should have gotten my personell file, Sir, You should have gotten your movie! I say we need ourselves a good old fashioned rehaul of Government. Justice is the fruit of the government and should not only be available to those with a golden ladder!

  • M.S. February 15, 2012, 12:42 pm

    You should file a complaint with your state Bar Association.

    What the lawyer did (I am a lawyer) is contrary to the professional standards of a lawyer. Lawyers should not litigate vexatious claims.

    In any case, just call up your state bar association (in the UK and other countries it would be the Legal Ombudsman) and ask them what they think. At the very least they should look into your claims, and the lawyer may get warning to stop them from doing that again -or- hopefully lose their practicing certificate. As they should.

    Anyway, that you for your story. All the best success in your career. At least you have integrity.

  • silas aka simon February 15, 2012, 1:13 pm

    lol man you guys seriously ??? where were you raised in fairy tell land … there are no streets paved with gold and being naive is your family’s fault but the “at least you have integrity” lol, where do you come from ??? look you will either die for what you belive in or kill for what you believe in pick one.

  • grunt February 15, 2012, 4:32 pm

    Did you remove the youtube clip?

  • Ordinal February 15, 2012, 5:46 pm

    This is what is technically known as “a lie”. They would not have been able to do this – they said it simply to get you to back down. I don’t at all blame you for doing so, but this should be said for the benefit of other people in the same situation in the future.

  • Kellia Ramares-Watson February 17, 2012, 10:57 pm

    Copyright should only belong to the artist or the artist’s estate. And the only thing someone should be able to get is a nonexclusive license to use the work. Then bastards like Fox couldn’t stop anyone else who has permission fros the artist/estate to use the work.

  • Tim Parrett April 1, 2012, 10:48 pm

    The problem is the ideas can be bought and sold like any other property, so that technically, fox may have rights and the judge and jury may be convinced in this way. Distributors and promoters are a critical part of the ecnomony of the arts (and sciences), but unfortunately they wield so much power now and unfortunately legally so, that it is destroying innovation not just in the arts, but also the sciences and medicine. A truly fair system would try to bring these difficulties into light. In a better world, any idea for copyright or patent would always have some percentage ownership by the creator, regardless or buying and selling of rights. This would encourage innovation but not allow distributors and promoters to make unreasonable claims. It would allow people hired by companies to have some ownership automatically in anything they produce. This is very important for innovation, because manytimes companies use their power and money to sit on patents and ideas for purely selfish reasons (i.e. electric cars, drugs) so they can make the most money with something else (oil, a less effective but more money-making drug). Neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs invented the transistor, yet for all the money and power their companies have wielded you would think they were the real innovators of the twentieth century (they weren’t…they just exploited the ideas of others). Unfortunately their companies have so much money and power they just can afford to hide all their innovations so that no one can furthre build upon them constructively (unless it makes money in the short term for them, which is very counterproductive in the longterm). No one would have theought the transistor woud make a short term gain, but if it was locked away in a vault somewhere, we’d still be living in the 1950’s.

To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.