digital

Latest arrest turns '24' pirate into pawn

Internet piracy might have found itself a new poster boy last week in the form of Jorge Romero, a 24-year-old Chicago man busted for uploading episodes of Fox's "24" to a video-hosting site. Imagine his surprise when FBI agents in April knocked on his door with a search warrant and seized his computer. Now he could face up to three years in jail on a felony charge for criminal copyright infringement.

The message from "24" producer 20th Century Fox was clear: There are real consequences to online piracy. The TV industry is vulnerable to bootlegging, said research firm NPD Group, which found in December that 20% of illegal video downloads are series — four times the rate of movies.

But making an example of Romero strikes me as unfair. He is a guppy in the roiling sea that is the Internet, where there are much bigger fish to fry.

First, understand the crime in question: Romero is not being charged with pilfering the "24" episodes from Fox (the culprit is still at large). The leak probably sprung somewhere in the retail world given that stores received a DVD of the episodes before they even aired in primetime as part of a unique marketing blitz from Fox. In all likelihood, someone pulled the episodes off the DVD before they were even stocked on shelves and made it available on illegal file-sharing services.

What Romero did was find the leaked episodes on one of those services, uploaded them to LiveDigital.com and posted links on Digg.com. Not commendable behavior by any means, but is it criminal? The episodes were already on the Internet, and he was probably one of hundreds of Web surfers who came across it.

Eric Goldman, a professor and cyberlaw expert at the Santa Clara University School of Law, considers the prosecution of Romero an example of the "lottery effect" that often determines who takes the fall in online copyright violations. "It makes me scratch my head a little because it is somewhat arbitrary who gets singled out for this treatment," he says.

LiveDigital isn't even the only site where the files were uploaded; a second batch popped up on the vastly more popular YouTube. The FBI is still looking for the person responsible for making that upload.

But whether that individual is found, consider that all that offender and Romero did was simply move the files from one area of the Internet to another. Although Romero certainly aggravated the problem by uploading and advertising the episodes on a commercial Web site, the peer-to-peer network where it originated isn't exactly a vacant lot, either.

The prosecution of Romero seems even shakier when you consider that the infraction he committed pales in comparison to the legions of outlaw sites out there that do what Romero did on a much bigger scale, compiling hundreds of links to virtually every pirated copy of TV programs on the Internet. These so-called "leech sites" teem the Web and, barring the occasional MPAA crackdown, seem to operate virtually undisturbed.

Making an example of Romero is an easier way of sending a message to the Internet community at large, Goldman believes, particularly when the federal government is the one sending the message.

"It's one thing for Fox to win a civil judgment against someone," he says. But wielding the power to make sure an offender ends up "sharing a cell with Paris Hilton — that's a more chilling thought."



Fox also is taking some heat in another copyright fracas with Broad caster.com, which the studio alleges is infringing on "The Simpsons" with an animated parody that reimagines the series with O.J. Simpson. Broadcaster.com not only ignored Fox's takedown request but issued another episode Tuesday — available at http://www.broadcaster.com/tms/ojs.html — that includes a depiction of Rupert Murdoch. The title? "Go Fox Yourself."
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