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Unions Decrying Illegal Downloads

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"Unauthorized free copying and distribution of copyrighted sound recordings and films on the Internet directly harm...creative artists," the nation's entertainment unions have told the U.S. Supreme Court.

Five labor organizations representing America's actors, writers, directors, and musicians have complained of the injury caused by illegal Internet downloads in a 21-page "friend of the court" brief filed in support of film and music companies led by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear MGM and the other major studios' lawsuit against Grokster Ltd. and StreamCast Networks Inc., two file-sharing services. MGM and its allies have complained that the two services illegally provide music and films over the Internet. The high court's decision in the legal battle over peer-to-peer sharing could possibly cause a rewrite of copyright law.

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the Writers Guild of America, West (WGA), the Directors Guild of America (DGA), and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) are using their "friend" brief to define how illegal downloading harms their members.

"Grokster and StreamCast operate -- for a profit -- Internet services through which millions of users copy and distribute copyrighted sound recordings and films without the copyright holders' authorization and without making any payments," states the unions' brief. "The harmful effects of the infringements...are not absorbed by some abstract 'entertainment industry.' To the contrary, that harm directly affects the AFM, AFTRA, DGA, SAG, and WGA artists who create those sound recordings and films."

According to the brief, the harmful results include the following:

- Every infringing download "denies creators payment for their work...in a way beyond the financial -- through their performances, artists offer up their very essences to the consumer, and the consumer refuses to offer anything in return."

- The free download most likely substitutes for a purchase. Artists lose the royalties and healthcare and pension contributions that would have come with that purchase.

"[T]here is no fat in the incomes of most sound recording and film creators," the brief argues. "While it is true that they create for love and out of passion, it is also true that they must be able to earn a living -- unreduced by unlawful 'sharing' that shares nothing with them -- or they will be unable to continue to devote themselves to music and film, and to satisfy the public's desire for their art."

The brief stresses, "AFM, AFTRA, DGA, SAG, and WGA creative artists follow a hard, financially uncertain, and precarious calling. A few 'stars' do fabulously well. Tens of thousands of artists with great talent and commitment never make a go of it. The great majority who succeed struggle financially and earn no more than a modest living. In this regard, they are heavily dependent on financial arrangements that produce sporadic and varied income streams tied to the sale or licensing of their creative works."

Even successful actors, screenwriters, and directors "may work at best only one year out of two," the brief notes. Because of that, those artists depend heavily on union contracts that include minimum payments, royalties for past work, and healthcare and pension benefits.

The brief also lists the size of each union's membership: SAG (over 120,000), AFTRA (approximately 80,000), WGA West (8,500), DGA (over 12,000), and AFM (100,000).

While the Supreme Court agreed in December to hear the MGM case, the justices probably won't rule on the issue until the middle of the year. The court must decide whether the file-sharing services are indeed involved in activity that violates federal copyright law. The unions filed their "friend" brief on Jan. 25.

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