Steal this film?

I’m working on an ethical justification for owning pirated films. It’s not easy. I’ve been trained to think of copyright infringement as theft. That’s the industry’s line, which always sounds so damned logical.

But intellectual property issues aren’t so simple.

The subject came up during a recent discussion of the film Sin City, based on the graphic novels of Frank Miller. Though the genre’s not my usual fare, I’ve seen it twice with my adult children.

My college students argued over whether any redeeming value existed amidst all the gratuitous slicing, dicing, blood splattering, dripping and decapitation. In Basin City, heroes are as ruthless as villains, and any action can be justified—from slugging women to killing unarmed religious leaders to almost beheading a corrupt cop. ("She turned him into a Pez dispenser.")

I saw the film twice, hunting for underlying narratives of guilt and innocence, transgression and redemption. I mentioned I might see it again.

“Do you want it?” a student asked me. “Because I can burn a copy for you.”

With speedy Internet comes access to any recorded content. You can download the latest South Park or watch films before the theater release.

The Motion Picture Association of America claims to have lost $3 billion to piracy, which it considers theft. Others consider file-sharing a basic right of the techno-savvy.

I might feel entitled to a copy of Sin City since I’ve already paid more than $40 in Century Theatres tickets. Filmmakers have exceeded $70 million in box office receipts. (Robots earned $128 million so far, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy raked in $21 million last weekend.)

We also pay plenty to be plugged in. Americans can dole out more than $200 a month in cable/satellite TV, Internet access, mobile phone service, satellite radio, online game and streaming music services, according to Wired magazine’s May issue.

Record industry execs have been worrying about profits since the advent of radio. If people could listen to free music, execs reasoned, there’d be no market for recorded music. Wrong. Radio play increased appetite for tuneage and was soon a critical ingredient in record sales.

In the 1970s, record execs wet themselves over cassette tapes. Now, the vicious battle over MP3 technology continues as the Recording Industry Association of America last week filed suits against another 725 file-sharers.

Catching downloaders isn’t difficult given expanded surveillance powers under the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA Patriot) Act of 2001. The Electronic Frontier Foundation ( frets over the use of the Patriot Act’s “sneak and peek” section (no warrant necessary) in searches of personal electronic data.

Surprise. Feds are using anti-terrorism laws against kids who merely want to download the newest from System of a Down—a band that urges them to Steal This Album. (The Patriot Act will expire this year unless renewed by Congress. E-mail your elected ones to support its demise.)

It’s true that media theft could lead to a loss of corporate control over music and films. Boo-hoo. If the profit motive for creating art dwindled, would artists still create? I think so. Content might be better without the entities that bring us endless forays into the world of reality TV. Artists would create for the love of the medium—much the way teachers labor over class plans, homework and tests, rewarded only by tiny paychecks and the enduring admiration of students.

Big media is a dinosaur. With every attempt to control content comes a new digital loophole. Encryptions are broken, codes exchanged and more files shared. The RIAA and MPAA won’t win. It’s evolve or get your profiteering head hacked off while being eaten alive by a bloodthirsty canine in Sin City.