Web site kicks off campaign to turn in movie pirates

Mar 05,2006
A purification campaign is going on in Korea, an engrossing combination of high technology and old-fashioned morality, the universal instinct to make a buck and a uniquely Korean reaction to a perceived social problem.
The issue is pirated movies available on the Internet, and the reaction is from a Web site doing something about it.
On Feb. 1, a Web site called Cinetizen launched a campaign to rid Korea of pirated movies. The site is a movie information portal, and the managers say the new campaign, although run on behalf of 10 Korean moviemakers, is independent of them and receiving no direct financial support.
They dubbed the campaign “film paparazzi” and invited Internet users to snitch on their fellow Internet users who had made pirated movies available for download.
Like the “traffic paparazzi” or corruption-reporting campaigns before it, this campaign is based on the idea of social “self-purification.” Unlike that earlier encouragement of camera-wielding observers of red-light running drivers or reporters of politicians and businessmen on the take, the latest campaign is a private one, not government sponsored.
People who discover an illegal movie file can report it to the operators of the Web site. If the report is valid, the Web site will post the details of the matter, including the name of the movie, where it was posted and the online nickname of the poster.
The site operators have introduced a cunning twist. The person who first reports a specific posting of a pirated film is eligible for a bounty of 10,000 won (just over $10) or a pair of movie tickets, worth perhaps 14,000 won. The cash to support the rewards comes from shamed uploaders who pay to have their names removed from the site or, the operators say, perhaps from the proceeds of lawsuits filed against the posters if moral suasion does not work.
“Our most active participant has reported about 1,000 different cases. Technically, if they are all settled, he could receive a total of 10 million won,” said Yoon Sang-bae, a Cinetizen manager.
Cinetizen has 10 full-time employees, but it had to hire 30 part-time workers and buy new computers to handle the flood of reports that began to pour in when the site launched its campaign.
These illegal video files, by no means unique to Korea, range from clips shot on camcorders smuggled into movie theaters to copies of legitimate DVDs.
Although Korea’s pervasive high-speed Internet service makes it feasible to download full-length DVDs, many of the films are in a compressed format called Divx, which sacrifices some video and audio quality for smaller file sizes.
In the first month of the campaign, Cinetizen said, about 60,000 reports from its public-spirited users came in.
The site operators say they’re not violating anyone’s privacy in the first instance. “We can’t find out who a person is just by his ID since we don’t have criminal investigative rights, but if the company whose copyrights were infringed decided to sue, then the court could ask the administrator of the Web site for the details of that person,” Mr. Yoon at Cinetizen said.
But the pressure is still on. Many illegal file uploaders have checked into Cinetizen’s hall of shame and found their names on the “most-wanted” list. About 1,000 of them have gotten in touch with Cinetizen to negotiate a settlement before the film studios decide to take legal action.
To help those people ease their guilty consciences, Cinetizen is ready to deal. In February, it offered to remove those posted nicknames for a fee of 50,000 won; beginning Wednesday, the fee was doubled to 100,000 won. And please don’t think Cinetizen is unreasonable ― they offer discounts for volume crooks. One college student haggled a bit and got a discount when he paid to wipe away listings of about 900 film files he had posted on the net.
The site operators say that about half the people who have been reported are middle and high school students. Some students have voluntarily turned themselves in. In most cases, they are students who used their parents’ IDs to upload the files, and begged Cinetizen not to post those borrowed IDs on the Web site.
On Tuesday, Cinetizen paid off its first snitches, several hundred of them, just under 10 million won in aggregate. It said that about a thousand cases may be taken to court. Ilsong, a law firm, is preparing to sue on behalf of Cinetizen, which in turn is acting as an agent for Korea’s filmmakers. The Web site and the law firm both emphasized that the studios, not Cinetizen, would be the recipient of any legal settlements; Cinetizen wants only to recover its expenses.
According to Kim Jae-cheol, a lawyer at Ilsong, the companies backing the campaign include filmmakers, distributors and DVD importers. He added that the ties between the company and Cinetizen were informal, not legal, and that the parties involved had not yet decided on the split of proceeds among Ilsong, Cinetizen and the commercial interests.
Mr. Kim said the number of people being targeted was larger than Cinetizen’s estimate. “We’re preparing about 3,000 criminal suits right now, which will be filed under Cinetizen’s name as a proxy,” he said. “The companies are reluctant to reveal their own names because they don’t want a backlash, and many are DVD importers who don’t really have an association to represent them here.”
The extent of the piracy, in Korea as elsewhere, makes the film companies quite interested in getting it under control. According to the Korea Film Association, film industry losses because of illegally copied files are growing steadily. In 2003, losses amounted to 120 billion won and almost doubled the following year to 222 billion won. Last year, the Korean Film Council estimated that the losses amounted to 280 billion won.
Video and DVD rental shops are also applauding the campaign. The Video Rental Association said there were 35,000 video rental shops in 1988, back in the days of Betamax and VHS tapes, but only 7,000 now. The association said Internet piracy has resulted in a recent revenue drop at its members from 897 billion won in 1999 to 700 billion won in 2004.
Ohvideopost, an association of video and book rental shops, recently gave Cinetizen some public backing, saying it would do its best to support the campaign. Cinetizen said that the top four illegally posted films were all Korean movies, including last year’s blockbuster “Welcome to Dongmakgol.” Fifth was a Hollywood horror film, “Saw II,” which only arrived in Korean theaters on Feb. 16 and is not yet available in DVD on the market here. The campaign is not without its detractors, of course, and some have set up anti-Cinetizen sites to air their grievances. The bulk of those gripes, of course, are from disgruntled pirates. Most bemoan their bad luck in getting caught, but others have some apparently legitimate gripes. The Cinetizen campaign obliges reporters to prove that a file is available on the Net and can be downloaded and run on a user’s computer. It asks posters to provide four screen captures from the film as proof. That means, of course, that the people who report the illegal files have downloaded them. “It’s all about supply and demand, and Cinetizen is boosting demand,” complained one poster.
And you have to be first to report. The 10,000-won reward goes only to one person, although the second and third posters can get modest discounts on theater admissions purchased through the Cinetizen site. Critics also complain that the site is going only after the end-users and not the network file storage sites or peer-to-peer sites where the illegal moves are being posted. They point out that some sites actively encourage illegal uploads. Other posters were filled with remorse. “I paid a settlement fee today,” one poster wrote on an anti-Cinetizen Web site. “It’s like drunken driving. You know it’s wrong, but you still feel unlucky when you get caught. I don’t think we have a right to complain though.”

by Wohn Dong-hee

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