Why did the MPA infringe copyright?

The Motion Picture Association, a corporate movie lobby group, was distributing software which allows the installer (and, of course, the MPA) to get more information on bandwidth usage. The MPA hopes that this will more clearly indicate who is using the Internet to share copies of movies whose copyrights are held by the MPA’s clients. The MPA sends speakers around the world to discourage copyright infringement of its client’s movies. What are the odds the MPA would commit copyright infringement?

Update: Matthew Garrett tells more about his dealing with the MPAA.


The MPA has customized and distributed a GNU/Linux operating system that came with network monitoring tools. This particular GNU/Linux system came with a number of programs that are licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL) which requires that if anyone distributes a GPL-covered program, one must share and share alike—one must also distribute the “complete corresponding source code” for that program or a written promise (valid for up to 3 years) to get that source code any time.

The GPL says this because it is this license’s goal to give every user of covered software certain freedoms with the software. When people have the freedom to share and modify the programs, they can make the programs do what the user wants them to do. By contrast, proprietary software denies users these freedoms—proprietary software does what the proprietor wants it to do.

The MPA is free to use, share, and modify GPL-covered software to suit its desires. So are you.

But the MPA distributed GPL-covered software without complete corresponding source code or a written promise to get said source code.

The organization which decries “piracy” did not abide by the license for the copyrighted works it distributed.

Recent events

And the MPA has been called on their illicit distribution by Matthew Garrett, a copyright holder to some of the software the MPA distributed.

The Motion Picture Association are the defenders of harmful maximalist copyright law. They are major proponents of periodically and retroactively increasing the term of copyright thus achieving an unconstitutional infinite copyright term. The MPA is a major proponent of increasing the scope of copyright law with laws like the DMCA. The DMCA allows copyright holders to control any published work through copy restrictions which never expire (like the encryption found on DVDs). Even if the underlying work is in the public domain, it’s illegal to break the copy restriction, so the work is less accessible. The MPA is a major proponent of pushing American copyright law abroad in trade agreements.

And the MPA could have easily complied with copyright law in this case and achieved their ends by obeying the GPL. Garrett is working with everyone by licensing his work to share and be modified so long as some easy conditions are met. By licensing under a free software license, he’s making it easy to work with him.

Not surprising

This is hardly new behavior for the MPA’s clients. The movie “industry” (they churn out movies to consumers like a factory) the MPA represents got its start by violating a different law—patent law. Edison’s patents on movie-making equipment covered machines used by early Hollywood movie pioneers Warner Bros., Fox (William Fox), and Paramount studios (Adolph Zukor). These movie makers fled west to illicitly and commercially make and project movies. Edison’s patent enforcers didn’t catch up to them before the patents were unenforcible.

Like so many of the largest businesses today, a bit of ill-gotten gain goes a long way. Somehow the checkered history of the MPA’s clients didn’t make a starring role in the MPA’s representatives talks, like when Jack Valenti spoke some years back at a film festival hosted by movie critic Roger Ebert in Urbana, Illinois. Fortunately there were many speakers at the audience mic ready to amend Valenti’s talk. I was one of those speakers and I also fielded questions from interested audience members looking for more analysis of the public impact of copyright law, copyright term extension, the example set by the free software movement, and how we can challenge corporate copyright dominance.

It’s not the first time the MPA committed copyright infringement either. While reviewing the movie “This Film Is Not Yet Rated“, a documentary critical of the MPAA’s movie rating process, the MPAA committed copyright infringement by illicitly making copies of the movie. The DVD release of the movie has a recording of the MPAA assuring Kirby Dick, the movie’s director, that no such copy would be made.

We can’t be surprised of the MPA’s behavior given their past, but this instance is particularly shameful because the copyright holders of all of that software are so nice to us by licensing their work such that we can treat one another like neighbors.


Ars Technica quotes the MPAA saying their staff was unavailable during the Thanksgiving holiday when they received Garrett’s takedown notice and that because they “take copyright very seriously” they acted quickly after Thanksgiving.

But they didn’t act quickly. And more importantly, the MPAA doesn’t explain why they didn’t read and comply with the GPL straight away.

And what about after Garrett issued the takedown notice? Garrett notes:

The infringing material was still available the best part of 9 days after the original notification was sent. At least 4 of those 9 were business days. The material was not removed until after I had contacted the ISP and they had informed me they were going to contact the MPAA.

The MPA could have avoided this embarassing mess by simply distributing complete corresponding source code right along side the executable programs. I’m sure the MPA expects all of us to read their client’s terms; their clients put those terms on DVDs in unskippable sections, their clients use another DVD feature to make sure you play these sections at least once per playback before the feature plays (users of free software DVD players like VideoLAN Client probably never noticed this). By contrast, Garrett’s text file license and source code comments are downright unobtrusive. The MPAA’s hypocritical behavior is not what one expects from an organization so strident about so-called “piracy”.