Piracy in the Motion Picture Industry

By Broderick, Suzanne | Film & History, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Piracy in the Motion Picture Industry


Broderick, Suzanne, Film & History


Kerry Segrave. Piracy In The Motion Picture Industry. McFarland, 2003. $36.50; 222 pages.

Another Crisis

The FBI warning which appears at the beginning of copyrighted videos and DVD's should not be taken lightly. Jack Valenti and The Motion Picture Association of America he represents would be delighted to have the FBI enter your house, confiscate your purloined movies, and hold your duping equipment as evidence. In 1979, Valenti (always a colorful speaker) told 60 Minutes ' Harry Reasoner that film piracy "is a cancer in the belly of the film business." Kerry Segrave's history of piracy in the motion picture industry was published in 2003 and states in the conclusion that, "Hollywood hit its roughest spot as the VCR and video cassette arrived and became ubiquitous." Now Valenti and the Motion Picture Association of America have another crisis-a really, really rough spot-digital piracy-pirates who sail Cyberspace. As Tom Spring of PCWorld.com states, "If you think copying a movie and downloading The Matrix from Kaza is okay, Jack Valenti wants a word with you."

In Piracy In The Motion Picture Industry, Segrave has comprehensively researched film theft history. The author defines film piracy "as the unauthorized reproduction or use of motion pictures." He, of course, acknowledges that there is nothing new under the sun, and begins his research (There is a footnote at the end of every paragraph, and in the preface, Segrave credits Variety as a major source of information.) by recounting the offenses of vaudevillian appropriators who incorporated parts of another entertainer's acts or simply replicated the entire act. Georgie Jessel, W.C. Fields, Harry Houdini, George Burns, Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Fred Alien are the more familiar names of those who either stole, were stolen from, or both.

In an open letter to Variety, Bert Lahr once accused Joe E. Brown of having stolen the Lahr character. The book's first chapter discusses many of these transgressions and the entertainers' attempts, employing legal means as well as peer pressure, to force the imitators to cease and desist. Songs and entire acts were stolen from British entertainers and brought across the Atlantic to enjoy great success in the United States. American audiences were usually unaware that what they were seeing and hearing was not entirely original material. Also, vaudeville theaters often hired lesser-known and less expensive entertainers to perform the acts of more famous and more expensive performers. According to Segrave, these cases, many of them legal, are reported in detail in Variety.

As soon as motion pictures appeared, thieves devised a variety of ways to make money illegally from the new form of entertainment. During the silent era, "bicycling" was a popular form of film larceny: "An exhibitor who had rented a film legitimately for a period of time, say, one week at a fixed sum of dollars, would try to screen the print for an extra day or two at the beginning or end of his run. Or the cinema owner would rent the movie for one of his theatres and then screen it illegally at another theater he owned." Also common was the practice of two different theater owners trading and sharing legally rented movies for illegal screenings.

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