Star Wars lawyers get tough

When bootlegged snippets of music and movies make their way online before they've even been officially released, legitimate copyright holders stand to lose a whole lot of money.

At least, that's the theory that has led companies such as Lucasfilm Ltd., producer of the hugely hyped upcoming film "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace," to work furiously to eliminate pirated online versions of their work.

Lucasfilm this week reportedly put hundreds of Internet service providers on notice that it won't tolerate the online proliferation of bootlegged audio and video files from the soon-to-be-released movie. But the company may soon find out there's no simple way to put that genie back in the bottle, according to some experts. Ironically, Web search engines have made it easier for music and film companies to discover that their works are being pirated, but the Internet has also made it much harder to control the works, said Liam B. Lavery, an intellectual-property attorney with Preston Gates & Ellis in Seattle. "Once there is a leak, it spreads across the world really quickly," Lavery said.

Lavery added that while it's somewhat simple to discover which Internet service provider network the offending material resides on, it's next to impossible to find the specific person who pilfered the material. And under last year's Digital Millennium Copyright Act, ISPs can't be held liable for copyright infringement unless it's proven that they know exactly where the pirated works are located on their networks and do nothing to eliminate them.

In short, according to Lavery and other attorneys, this means that suing over online copyright violations is tough to do. But it's not impossible, and some intellectual-property lawyers believe more litigation is in the future. "I think there's every reasonable chance you are going to see more lawsuits," said Andy Norwood, head of the intellectual-property practice at the law firm Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis in the US. "We'll see a few significant, high-profile cases that will get the message out and set the standards for what will and won't be tolerated," Norwood said.

Norwood and Lavery are quick to point out that the Web really doesn't add any new wrinkles to the U.S. copyright statute, part of which dates from 1789. "The copyright holder still has the exclusive right to make a copy," regardless of whether the copying consists of making a videotape, a photocopy or a digital copy, Norwood said. But since VCR owners have for years copied television shows and movies and remained unmolested by the entertainment industry, consumers can be forgiven for wondering why, for example, the music industry has made such a fuss over people downloading audio files on MP3 players.

Part II to follow