The FBI warning which appears at the beginning of copyrighted videos and DVD's should not be taken lightly. Jack Valenti [End Page 87] 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 Allen 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. Hollywood studios fought back by employing "checkers" who attended film screenings to detect these unauthorized, unpaid-for showings.
Often copies of motion pictures were actually, physically stolen, frequently while they were in transport; sometimes dishonest projectionists "borrowed" films and reproduced them. One category of film outlaw was known as a "jackrabbit." This style of larceny was limited to the 1930's and 40's and involved exhibitors who traveled a circuit screening films. Even if these "jackrabbits" had legitimately rented the titles, they regularly profited from unreported screenings.
A different manner of crime against film began when TV wanted to reshow old Hollywood movies. In the beginning, studios sold their libraries by the foot, and TV edited films to suit the allotted time slots. One example Segrave related dealt with a film editor at WMAL-TV in Washington D.C. His job was to insert commercials and cut films' running time to fit the format. The editor admitted that he "'hacked several hundred films to pieces.'" For example, The Train (1965, Burt Lancaster), which ran for 143 minutes in theaters, was cut by 53 minutes! Segrave quotes journalist Bill Greely: "None but the true hack could fail to be upset by the gutting of features for TV . . ." In 1965, Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 was telecast on NBC—interrupted nine times for commercials hawking thirty-one different products. The Director's Guild of America got involved. Otto Preminger and George Stevens complained early and loudly about the mutilation of motion pictures by TV editors. Published in 1972, The Unkindest Cut discussed the arbitrary cutting of lengthy films. Eventually a legion of Hollywood directors including Steven Spielberg and George Lucas protested the disfigurement of their artistic creations.
Hollywood's worst nightmare began, however, with videotapes. Pirates make millions from illegally reproduced tapes and DVD's, both in the U.S and abroad. One foreign pirate reported he could make more money selling tapes than he could from selling cocaine. Apparently, it is not uncommon for foreign audiences to see pirated Hollywood films before they are even released in the United States. Countries with the most egregious record of offenses are (or have been) the UK, China, and Italy; however, practically every nation in the world—Brazil, India, Mexico, Thailand, and Malaysia, to mention only a few—harbors pirates.
Segrave's history of piracy in motion pictures appears to be meticulously researched and the author does not intrude into this research; he merely reports. Therefore, the book reads very much like an academic report. Piracy In the Motion Picture Industry recounts cases and gives accounts of related legal issues surrounding the pirating of copyrighted photodramas, including a high profile court case involving the private film library of Roddy McDowell. The book is full of out-of-the ordinary facts about America's favorite movies and the FBI's mission to enforce the [End Page 88] copyright law. For any scholar interested in the history of film piracy, Segrave's book is a well of information.