Thursday, April 19, 2007

MPAA ban effect on theaters

Today's post is given over to the text of a recent email from Ray Privett of NYC's Pioneer Theater. He's calling a meeting to discuss the potential ramifications of a recent MPAA pushed law in NYC aimed to fight piracy, but which could have broader implications. The meeting is today, and I can't make it, but Ray has promised updates.
From the email:

Hello, as some of you know I have called an informal meeting about a recently passed New York City law, relating to the videotaping in movie theaters. The Hollywood Reporter published an article on the topic, which says the following:
"Secretly videotaping movies in a New York City theater for illegal sale on the street would be a misdemeanor, with penalties including possible jail time, under a bill the City Council approved Thursday."

The law is here, and it proves to be more restrictive than the HR article indicates. As a movie theater operator, who is very concerned about the ongoing strength of theaters as exhibition spaces, and also as someone who cares a lot about filmmakers being able to profit from their hard works, I am very sympathetic to and appreciative of the law.

However, I have some pretty sincere reservations. It is in that context that I have called the informal, open meeting for Thursday, April 19, 1pm, at the Pioneer Theater, 155 East Third Street Near Avenue A.

At this meeting I want to discuss the ramifications of this law as it relates to film showings of public domain or other free to copy / reuse movies, where videotaping is encouraged. What defines a movie theater? What defines a movie? Does this resolution overlook contexts where sharing is authorized and appropriate, in a rush to redefine movie theaters according to the MPAA's dictates? Should a protest exhibition / civil disobedience act be mounted?

Feel free to bring your friends who might also be interested. If you or your friends are lawyers, or city council people, you are all very welcome.

In the remainder of this letter, I sketch out my reservations in further detail.

Best wishes

Ray Privett
Pioneer Theater

Appendix: commentary.

Here is the law, which, from my reading, seems to have passed and will become active within the next few months.

Int. No. 383-A
Full text is here:

Let's look at a few scenarios that this law affects. I'll start with a few scenarios about which there should be little debate, but then I'll move onto a scenario that I think is more complicated.

Scenario A - Robert:
Robert buys a ticket to a screening of THE DEPARTED, which has reserved all copyrights. Robert gets a seat with a clear view, from which he videotapes and audiotapes the entire movie. He goes home, and dumps his taping of the movie onto his computer. From that, he prints DVDs, which he sells on the street.

Has Robert violated this law? Yes, he has. In the parlance of the law, Robert has used a Recording Device, within a Place of Public Performance, in an Unauthorized Operation.

By selling DVDs, he also is directly profiting from this action.

Should this be a criminal act? In my opinion, yes. As it is.

Scenario B - Alice:
Alice buys a ticket to another public screening of THE DEPARTED, which, still, has reserved all copyrights. Alice also gets a seat with a clear view, from which she videotapes and audiotapes the entire movie. She goes home, and dumps her taping of the movie onto her computer. She then places the file online for download.

Has Alice violated this law? Yes, she has. In the parlance of the law, Alice has used a Recording Device, within a Place of Public Performance, in an Unauthorized Operation.

She has not, however, profited from this action, because she has not sold anything.

Should this be a criminal act? In my opinion, yes. As it is.

So, those are two scenarios that are relatively clear. They are also, probably, the scenarios the law intends to address. They are the scenarios addressed by the spirit of the law and also the letter of the law.

But let's look at Scenario C.

Scenario C - Bill:
Bill buys a ticket to a public screening of some short movies. Casey and Rudy made one of those short movies. Their short is licensed under a Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution, Non-Commercial, Share Alike license ( The screening is in a commercial venue, but Casey and Rudy have authorized the screening, thus waiving the "non-commercial" part of their license.

Bill goes to the screening, and videotapes Casey and Rudy's short while it plays in the theater. He then posts his taping of that screening online, in a manner from which he clearly has not profited. From their own website, Casey and Rudy themselves even link to the tape Bill recorded in the theater.

Has Bill violated the law in question? Yes, it seems, he has. In the parlance of the law, Bill has used a Recording Device, within a Place of Public Performance, in an Unauthorized Operation (as he did not receive any explicit authorization from the theater owners and managers, who only found out about his taping after the fact).

Should this be a criminal act? In my opinion, no. Why should it be? For starters, no copyright law has been broken. But, according to the law that went into effect, Bill has broken a law.

I doubt the people who crafted this law had any such scenario in mind as they were moved by the spirit of the law and as they wrote the letter of the law. However, the letter of that law would indeed make what Bill did a criminal act.

In fact, exactly this scenario has already played out, as you will see if you click here

Now, I don't think the law affects exactly the scenario as documented in that link, because everything happened before the new law passed.

But if something similar took place again, it seems the law would be violated.

Why? Aren't we inappropriately constraining the definition of what a movie theater is, and of what can be shown there? Doesn't it constrain the definition of a movie theater as a place that only shows "all rights reserved" movies? How does the law affect the ability to remix and reuse "some rights reserved" and public domain works?

If you come to the meeting, let's chat about this. Again, this is an informal meeting. To some, the context might seem trivial. But I think the kernel of the issue is important.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here's an off the wall one for you. Tonight my husband, sister, brother-in-law, and I went to see Jersey Boys. I bought the tickets for the joint birthdays of my sister and husband as a surprise gift. We were having a great evening...a nice dinner, a great show...At intermission, with his back to the empty stage my husband took a picture with a camera of 3 of us sitting in our seats to mark the birthday occasion. An usher came running over literally screaming at us very abusively about having taken the picture of 3 people in a seat with no picture of even the empty stage whatsoever! We were mortified...she ruined are evening...3 rows worth of people around us were also aghast at the ushers very threatening behavior for such an obvious inoccuous action as taken a picture of 3 people in theater seats on their birthday.....Incredible to be treated this way after spending $500 for show tickets...I spoke to the Manager after the show who informed me she was doing her job correctly as taking the picture of the 3 theater goers was indeed against the law of the City of New York....Incredible to feel like you're in a communist country right in New York!...... :(