Monday, April 6, 2009

The Mysterious Case of Wolverine, or: Does the Church Have a Witness Regarding Illegal Downloading?

You may have heard about the ongoing dust-up regarding the appearance of an illegal, unfinished (but high quality) version of the upcoming film X-Men Origins: Wolverine on the internet. It has been an explosive story for the following reasons:

1) Piracy is not in its infancy anymore: studios are up on the dangers and take great measures to protect themselves. Yet it still happened.

2) The version, while unfinished (VFX shots still incomplete, footage from re-shoots not added in, not the final edit, not the final score), was not a cheap copy or obvious in its "original" location from whence it was stolen. That is, this was someone close to the production.

3) 20th Century Fox did not do themselves any favors in their lawsuit against Warner Bros. back in January over money ostensibly due them for Watchmen. Questions have inevitably arisen concerning whether this was payback on Warner Bros.' part.

4) This isn't the black market in another country, where it is well known that poor quality versions of soon-to-be released films find their way to DVD a few days before release. This is Fox's gigantic summer kick-off tentpole one month before release, for free download on the world wide web. How many millions will be lost?

5) The standard cinematic internet sites and blogs (Ain't It Cool News, /Film,, IGN, Yahoo!, CHUD, HitFix, etc.) straightforwardly condemned the piracy, refused to link to places hosting the download, and supported Fox (although known for their rabidly anti-fan and anti-internet stance and practices) as the rightful copyright owner of a property they spent millions of dollars on especially at a time when thousands of people are losing jobs in the movie industry.

6) In an unexpected and strange turn of events, Roger Friedman -- a freelance movie columnist writing for! -- downloaded the film, reviewed it in an online article on Fox's website, and casually recommended downloading both Wolverine and the other top movies currently at the box office. Early commentary swirled around the gross possibility that Friedman's review was Fox's form of authorized damage control, in which case their arrogant hypocrisy would be unmatched. Turns out this was not part of their game plan, and it looks as if they had Friedman fired.

The online film community is still reeling from all of this, and I'm sure there will be more to add to the story as it develops -- most notably how well Wolverine does in its opening weekend -- but in following all of it I have had one question in my mind:

What does the church have to say about all this?

The best answer I can come up with? Not much.

Which is only to say that, like nearly all of the cultural issues before Christians in America, the church does not speak in a uniform voice. But how gray of an issue is this?

In our country there is such a thing called copyright, and copyright may be applied to content such as movies and songs. If I own a movie or song so copyrighted without going through the legal means by which I pay the creators and owners of said copyrighted material (or without receiving it as a gift from people who went through said legal means), I have broken the law and I am culpable for that crime, however minor or major.

Am I missing something? Is it more complicated than that?

We do not have a "right" to download for free what artists and businesses spend money making in the hopes that they will receive compensation, being that they do it for a living. I am not talking about downloading content that artists make clear they want downloaded and/or passed around (such as Derek Webb, or Radiohead's pay-what-you-want deal in 2007). I am talking about the simple case of a leaked copy of Wolverine (in advance or not), or burning U2's No Line On The Horizon for a friend who didn't buy it, or, essentially, using Bit Torrent for downloading anything you didn't pay money for.

I have Christian friends with whom I have had conversations about this, and with whom I disagree, but I guess I remain unsatisfied. I have at least two primary questions:

1) What justifies Christians downloading or burning content they have not bought (i.e., breaking the law)?

2) What does this practice witness to a culture, especially the younger generation, that sees nothing wrong with this practice?

At the very least, I want Christians to be intentional and consistent in their ethics, and for the life of me, I cannot figure out how copyright violation fulfills either category. This is the type of very real, concrete, unhappy, messy, seemingly inconsequential ethical dilemma that bespeaks whether we take our call seriously or not. That is not to say that I am undoubtedly right; only that, as disciples of Jesus, we ought to think before we act.

I invite your feedback.


  1. Completely agree. Even if one totally disagree's the legitimacy of copyright in the first place; even if one thinks the movie companies are greedy and have too much money; it's irrelevant, quite simply. It is illegal. It is not certainly not "above reproach", and it is, ostensibility, a form of theft.

  2. Sam,

    Thanks for the amen. I am wondering, if I do a follow-up post, if there are ways to understand or conceive of copyright-breaking through downloading as a positive or at least defensible practice -- not to justify it as much as to offer an alternative perspective, a voice for the other side. I wonder if, since you obviously agree with me, you know of or can imagine any reasonable arguments.