Via Motherboard/The Simpsons
On January 5, in a new episode of The Simpsons, everyone’s favorite yellow-skinned family tackled the issue of copyright extremism. Homer was dismayed because he was the last person in town to see the new Radioactive Man movie; Lenny and Carl ridiculed him at work with spoilers, and when he finally got a chance to see it at the movie theater, he was grossed out by the overdone gimmicks of 3D, Hobbit framerate, and product placement in the film itself. So, Bart shows Homer how to use torrents.
In Simpsons land, the Pirate Bay is “the Bootleg Bay,” and just as Bart is about to show Homer, step-by-step, how to pirate the new Radioactive Man movie—the FOX logo flashes on screen, then the following text: “The FOX Network forbids the broadcast of step-by-step instructions for illegally downloading copyrighted intellectual property. In the meantime, please enjoy this footage of NASCAR’s 2011 Martinsville Cup.” This is followed by actual footage of NASCAR and the viewer is brought back into the world of animation once Bart’s lesson is complete.
You’ll have to watch the episode to see how an overzealous FBI is depicted as caring more about movie piracy than serial killers, or how Homer eventually wins a lawsuit against Hollywood after he’s ratted out by a guilt-stricken Marge for running his own pirate movie theatre in the Simpsons’ own backyard, but there’s a telling clip at the very end of the episode where Bart and Lisa are sitting together trying to make sense of this very modern problem.
Bart asks Lisa, “Who are the good guys: the media companies or the internet freedom guys?” Lisa responds, “Both groups claim their intentions are noble, but at the end of the day, they’re both trying to steal as much money as they can.” So Bart concludes that everyone’s a pirate, and Lisa agrees, but says the worst one of all is—and she’s cut off before she can answer. We’re shown the 2011 NASCAR footage again, and the credits roll.
Ostensibly this episode is a tongue-in-cheek jab at FOX and other studios like it for their stranglehold over copyright, and for the FBI’s hyper-aggressive attitude towards copyright offenders like Kim Dotcom. In real life, Kim is far from the only person being brought to task for running online networks where piracy thrives. In October, news quietly broke on Torrentfreak that FOX was suing a Canadian man who ran websites—such as “Watch The Simpsons Online” and “Watch Family Guy Online”—where people could find free, streaming links to episodes of FOX’s animated powerhouses. Then, earlier this month, it was confirmed that he had to pay out $10.5 million to the media giant, a legal predicament that has completely bankrupted him.
I got in touch with the 23-year-old site admin in question, who I can only identify as Nick, and we talked about this financially devastating situation he’s gotten himself into. Nick told me he was “surprised” over FOX’s reaction. “I assumed I'd hear about a movie site in Canada being taken down first and then I would have voluntarily followed suit to avoid any issues… but obviously I never expected to be the guinea pig.”
As for why he started these sites in the first place, he said, “I loved The Simpsons and so did many of my friends, but you couldn't buy the seasons on DVDs other than to season 10… and there was nothing on the web to help anyone out at the time—so I filled the gap. I was hoping FOX would eventually create their own service that I could link to or use in some way.”
Nick referred to FOX’s crusade against him as an “unneeded vendetta” and described at length how this trial has affected his life. “They are getting every penny from my house sale and that's really all I have for them… I was in significant debt with credit card companies and hardly able to keep on top of many of my bills, but they were trying to paint a picture as though I made half a million dollars per year with the thing.”
A framegrab from Nick's website.
While Nick said he did make a profit off of the sites, when I asked if he was living off of them he told me, “If you consider having large credit card debt and only being able to pay interest as a house payment living, then yes.”
This isn’t the first time Nick has gotten himself into legal trouble for running streaming sites. In 2010, he found himself at the wrong end of the MPAA’s fury for a site called www.watchxonline.com that he has since turned into a “legal streaming portal” with links to Netflix, Hulu, and the like. The MPAA only “harassed” Nick; there were no multi-million dollar threats. FOX went for blood.
Even after the MPAA conflict, Nick doesn’t consider his actions to be illegal. “It was only as illegal as using Google is. I found the episodes, I indexed them… if people ever complained about quality, I was always quick to tell them to buy the DVDs and support the show. I had links to Amazon so people could also purchase the Blu-rays and DVDs as they came out. My goal was never to take money or viewership away from FOX, as US viewership on my site was fairly low due to there being other sources [like Hulu]. But for worldwide visitors, such as Canada, FOX just gives them the finger [because you can’t watch Hulu in Canada].”
Nick considers the movie and TV industry to be at a similar crossroads that the music industry found itself at, before services like Spotify found a healthy middle-ground that provided an abundant streaming platform that fell on the right side of copyright law. “If all the entertainment industries got together and made a worldwide Hulu of sorts, they could and would kill piracy even if it was a minimal fee similar to Netflix; but have the entire library open worldwide, rather than [the way Netflix works] where someone can't watch something like The Office unless they are located in the US.”
At this point, Nick is just hoping that his declaration of bankruptcy will fend off FOX’s lawyers so he won’t have to repay the full sum of what they insist he owes. To be fair, Nick’s sites were quite brazen in their approach of cataloging free streaming links to every episode of The Simpsons and Family Guy; so it’s not a stretch to see why FOX’s lawyers were upset. But, as The Simpsons apparently argues in one of its most recent episodes, the aggressive litigation against copyright offenders in America is over the top.
Is bankrupting a young guy who’s profiting from exploiting digital space that has not been properly capitalized on by big media the best strategy? Or is FOX just playing a losing game of whack-a-mole? A quick Google search can find sites just like Nick’s still functioning online today, so what’s the point of ruining one guy’s life? Surely there’s a compromise to be made here, because at the very least, this situation reads as bad PR for the FOX Corporation. @patrickmcguire
UPDATE: In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that 21st Century Fox owns a small stake in VICE Media.