On April 29th, TelevisionWeek published a story written by reporter James Hibberd that documented the posting of several of this fall's big network pilots on websites dedicated to indexing files available for download over BitTorrent. This is happening more and more every year as the networks are forced to deal with consumer technology able to capture and transfer high quality digital videos faster than business technology is moving to protect the content.
While Hibberd wrote that network executives were surprised that these videos were available so soon before they air, Hibberd and TelevisionWeek apparently neglected to inform those same executives that they themselves had pirated the videos in order to confirm they were the real thing, according to the story itself.
The story probably would have gone mostly unnoticed, had it not been prominently linked to, in bright red coloring from the Drudge Report.
Not only are such actions morally questionable in the pursuit of a story - taking part in the very acts you are reporting on irreparably damages your ability to claim neutrality - they would appear to be illegal as well. Intentionally or not, Hibberd implicated his employer in several instances of willful copyright infringement.
The penalty for willful infringement is up a fine up to $150,000 per act. Because Hibberd didn't specify which pilots they pirated and which they merely noted the existence of, penalties if convicted could range from $300,000 for the illegal copying and sharing of NBC's Bionic Woman and ABC's Pushing Daisies (from Heroes executive-producer Bryan Fuller) up to a maximum of $1.2 million if all seven pilots referenced were downloaded, and shared in the process.
From the TV Week website:
[Note: due to Newsvine's technical limitations, the image capture cannot be embedded within the post. Follow this link to view it separately.
Because TV Week referred to the pilots as being available not on traditional file sharing networks, but BitTorrent web indexes, it seems reasonable to assume that TV Week uploaded a substantial portion of the files they also downloaded, given how the BitTorrent protocol operates. If this is how they got the files, it would appear they did more than just download it to verify the authenticity of the files, they also would have been sharing it with other downloaders.
Consider the ethics violations in reporting on TV show piracy while yourself pirating TV shows in order to write your story. That downloading them is necessary to verify that they are in fact real is not an excuse to break the law. It may not be big news or seem like a serious crime, but it is still news, and it is still a crime.
A request for comment from TelevisionWeek editor Greg Baumann was met with a simple but polite "No comment."
I realize that some people may think this is making something out of nothing, but I see it another way. The press has no exemption from copyright law while reporting. If Hibberd's claim that TelevisionWeek downloaded these episodes, even with good intentions, they still would have crossed the line.
The text of this article is Copyright © 2007 Paul William Tenny. All rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Attribution by: full name and original URL.