How Pirates Stole Lola: Ellen Seidler Explains the Intricacies of Online Theft at CMW 2011

How Pirates Stole Lola: Ellen Seidler Explains the Intricacies of Online Theft at CMW 2011

Clara Klein is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Ellen Seidler is a reluctant anti-piracy advocate.  Though advocacy was not her initial intention when she released her film And Then Came Lola, (co-directed by Megan Siler), her first-hand experience with piracy and its heart-breaking effects on creators has compelled her to “speak out and speak up” against online theft.  It also brought her to Canadian Music Week 2011 as the key note speaker for the Global Forum, which this year focused on combating piracy as a creative community.

Seidler, an American filmmaker with a B.A. in Fine Arts from Harvard University and an M.A. in Journalism from UC Berkeley, released And Then Came Lola one year ago.  Within 24 hours of its release it was available on pirate hosting sites and was almost immediately illegally downloaded by an astounding number of users.  She stopped counting at 35,000.  Why was this happening?  Was it because Seidler’s film was so great, so popular?  Her modest answer: “no”.  Piracy, she explained to the crowd, has become a BIG black market business.  To fully understand the problem, Seidler took the Forum participants through the piracy business model.

Technology has facilitated a steady stream of income for pirates with little overhead or risk and a “world-wide, willing customer base”.  People upload the films for free, although sometimes they are paid in points or cash, providing the hosting sites with free or next-to-free content to profit from through advertisements and subscription charges for upgrades.  The new trend sees the traditional torrent “file-sharing” sites giving way to cyber lockers, with new cloud-based cyber lockers popping up every day.  Seidler is confident that most of this content is stolen.

Further incentives and sustenance for illegal download hosting sites come from payment processors (credit card companies, etc), who provide pirates with easy and anonymous payment services.   Similarly, ad networks, the largest being Google AdSense, as well as their clients, profit from pirate sites who abundantly share links to their ads.

The irony of this messy situation astounds Seidler, who spotted Netflix ads on multiple pirate site pages offering And Then Came Lola.  Netflix sponsored her film.

Generally, advertisers claim that they don’t have much control over where their ads go since it is the ad networks they sign on to that place the ads.  Seidler contacted Netflix, and after initially ignoring her, they claimed that the goal of their ads was to convince people to use Netflix over pirate sites.  Interesting.  She’s had more luck with Microsoft, however, who seems to be taking more responsibility in preventing inadvertent placements on pirate sites using technology to monitor the good sites from the bad.

So what’s the solution?  According to Seidler, there is no absolute solution.  She likens the legal attempts at a solution of the United States Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) to holding an umbrella while standing under Niagara Falls.  She has sent hundreds of DMCA notices to host sites, who take down the flagged version of the video only to have another version posted hours later.  Google has responded to Seidler with warning emails that her notice will be forwarded to the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, who claim that DMCA notices have the effect of “chilling” free speech.

For Seidler, the best thing for filmmakers, actors, musicians and behind-the-scenes contributors to do is speak out, speak up, engage in an online dialogue with the public and take the profit out of piracy.  Creators need to put a face and a story to the effects of online theft.  Yes it’s hard to compete with free, but if consumers realize the harm involved in piracy, perhaps they will rethink their priorities and “give up their latte for a day” to support the arts.

Seidler made it clear at the outset of her address that this was not about her, her film, her experience, but about the struggle all creators currently face against rampant online theft.  The heartbreak is in the amount of effort, time and money that creators put into producing content that is so readily discounted when it is stolen by online consumers.  Clearly music and films have value to consumers, otherwise they wouldn’t want to steal them.  But that value was born from a great deal of effort, and when it is undermined and disrespected, jobs are lost.  Creativity is discouraged.  Contributions to human development are stifled.

To show your support for content creators, join (“like”) the Balanced Copyright Facebook group and check out Ellen’s blog.

You can find more information about And Then Came Lola and how to purchase it legally here.