SXSW Day 4: Thick as Thieves: When Your Fans Break the Law

This was supposed to be a panel about piracy, and how to handle it when fans stop paying for your stuff and start filesharing. Instead, the panelists talked a lot about copyright and fair use, and how to draw the line when fans make potentially transformative, possibly infringing new works. It probably had to go that way, given that there were two copyright lawyers on the panel: Jason Shultz from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Dean Marks, the Senior Vice President for Intellectual Property at Warner Brothers.

I was surprised to learn that Warner Brothers has (or claims to have) a very liberal policy when it comes to no-budget and student filmmakers requesting licenses to use clips; while WB can’t legally grant free permissions because of agreements with unions and guilds, they do issue “no objection” letters guaranteeing that the student can use the clip without fear of a lawsuit. I can’t wait to tell my Communications and Art & Design faculty.

There were also two filmmakers on the panel, and I was particularly charmed by M dot Strange, an independent, pro-piracy animator. His philosophy is, “You should be happy if anybody wants to watch your movie in any way, and you should try to figure out how to make money from it after.” He suggests making the DVD value-added – his offers 8 alternate soundtracks to the film, along with very cool cover art – in order to encourage your fans to buy your movie after they’ve already watched it for free online. He also argues that “If you don’t have a P&A [Prints and Advertising] budget, piracy is your promotion.” The torrent seeders essentially worked on dot Strange’s behalf, not only providing free distribution, but also promoting the film on their websites and creating subtitled versions in several languages, instantly expanding his potential audience. He’s my new poster child for the power of unauthorized distribution.