Jason Kandel

How Award Screener Piracy Impacts Hollywood

Piracy advocate Peter Sunde says piracy can't be stopped and shouldn’t be treated as a crime

Online piracy is often blamed for ruining a film's box office success or even costing many in Hollywood their jobs. But a week before Hollywood's biggest award ceremony, how big of a problem is piracy?

Quentin Tarantino's latest Oscar contender "The Hateful Eight" is now playing in theaters - but it's also streaming online for the world to see.

"Towards the end of the year, there's an increase (in piracy) for the screeners going out," said FBI Special Agent L.J. Connolly, whose copyright infringement division investigates stolen DVD screeners like a copy of "The Hateful Eight" that disappeared from a production company in late 2015.

Hollywood insiders tell NBC4 some films send out as many as 60,000 screeners to various guild and academy members.

When a copy shows up online - as have all the films nominated for this year's Academy Awards - the FBI uses a watermark on each DVD to determine where the leak began.

"We're able to track the footprints," Connolly said.

That pirated copy of "The Hateful Eight" led investigators to Alcon Entertainment, where the screener reportedly disappeared from the mail.

Connolly said that's often how leaks begin and why they're sometimes hard to trace.

"The economic impact can be huge," he said.

The Motion Picture Association of America estimates $58 billion annually - and fewer jobs available in Hollywood.

Filesharing news site TorrentFreak estimates about a third of internet users have watched pirated movies or listened to pirated music online.

The FBI said if someone watches a movie without permission - they're a pirate, plain and simple.

"If you download a file, watch a file," Connolly said, "it's a federal crime."

Peter Sunde, one of the only people ever sent to prison for piracy for co-founding the filesharing site The Pirate Bay, disagrees.

"Piracy is the majority of the internet," he said.

He sees piracy as inevitable, unable to be stopped by the FBI or other authorities.

"The only way to get rid of piracy is to stop calling it piracy and include these people," he said, "and stop treating them as criminals."

Now freed, Sunde believes laws are too favorable to big media companies and out of touch with today's world.

"Like most people who go to prison for an unfair thing, we become more persuaded in our own beliefs," Sunde said.

And Sunde said some films benefit from the word of mouth piracy creates - which often allows films with limited release to be seen by the world.

"Most of the people leaking movies or giving out movies are because they love the movies," he said.

Connolly admits piracy may never be stopped, but he believes anti-piracy is important to keeping the entertainment industry thriving.

"The studios do spend an incredible amount of money on the technology that they use to protect their products," he said.

"People work hard on putting movies together, when you download a file you steal a part of what that person made."

The FBI told NBC4 some studios play up when a film is leaked online because it can give free publicity before Oscar season.

For that "The Hateful Eight" case, neither the FBI nor the production company for which the screener was intended would comment on the investigation.

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