The history of piracy

I’m not talking about Captain Hook here. There’s a great longform article over at Paleofuture about one of the first people to sell films to regular folks. I do recommend the read, but if you’re in a rush, here’s the gist.

There was this guy named Woody Wise. Yes that’s his real name. He worked in a movie theater back in the days when people literally threw away movie prints they were done with. He started buying them from the people who were just going to throw them away anyway. In the process, two things happened:

  1. He started on the road to a long career selling films, both legally and “semi-legally” to collectors.
  2. He got busted by the FBI for copyright infringement.

It’s a good story, one that spans about 50 years and there’s a lot to learn there. It’s funny to think that back then, studios didn’t really realize the market for ownership of movies. In fact it wasn’t until the late 1970s that they started paying any attention to home video at all, and that was after they tried and failed to sue VCRs into oblivion. Today, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way, with people preferring to use on-demand services and rentals instead of ownership. But either way, we’re talking about watching the movie you want on your time, not the theater’s.

Oh and the other point…

Yes you can actually get sued and even serve jail time for pirating films or even showing them publicly. Mr. Wise admits there were some cases where he duplicated films and sold them, although most if not all were cases where he believed the films to be in the public domain. Where they “got him,” though, was with public exhibition. Even if you own a copyrighted work like a movie, that doesn’t mean you can show it in public without permission of the rightsholder. If you are in a bar and watching TV, that bar owner has paid for the rights to show the programs publicly.

It’s a good lesson to learn because most people think there’s nothing wrong with having a pool party and showing a movie outdoors. There probably isn’t, but be careful. If anyone besides your invited guests can see that movie, you’re probably breaking the law. It would be a pretty bored lawman who would bust you for that, but you never know, right?

What you need to get through the day

Yes, it’s a little lie that we tell ourselves every day. No one will get hurt if we copy an album owned by a friend, share a Netflix password, or rip a movie to our hard drives to watch later. It’s a victimless crime, we say. Victimless or not, it’s a crime though and sooner or later if you’re not careful you’ll get caught. There are probably bigger pirates in the world than you, and the feds will catch them first. Who’s to say that you won’t be sitting in a diner some day, talking about how a friend lent you the latest album by Panic at the Disco, and you ripped the vinyl to your hard drive. And then you realize that a federal officer was on the other side of the booth. You just confessed to a federal crime.


All of a sudden your Friday wouldn’t be so fun.


About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.