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Kathy Wolfe

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Piracy Profiteers: Time to Walk the Plank

Posted: 01/17/12 08:37 AM ET

In 1985, I began a company that distributed films through a simple mail-order catalog. My vision was more than simply fulfilling orders; I wanted to connect the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi and trans) community to meaningful images through film. I hoped that experiencing these films would foster a sense of pride and understanding in and for my community. Though my company distributes some studio produced films, I have been honored to work primarily with independent filmmakers -- helping them connect their films with their audience. Now, more than 25 years later, my dream has been realized. Every day I receive feedback that affirms our mission that these films have helped people and families all over the world navigate some of the most difficult questions about relationships and identity.

Though my team and I are consistently amazed with the speed at which our world has evolved, we have been disheartened to witness the rapid rise of online piracy. Not only has piracy negatively affected our bottom line, but more significantly, it has undermined the careers of many talented aspiring filmmakers.

Those who finance films generally don't view LGBT storylines as box office winners. As a result, filmmakers who want to tell these stories often turn to creative forms of financing. The process can be a long and brutal one. Filmmakers often risk their personal finances in the process. When online thieves undermine the market for their films these artists have no chance to compete. Once their film is posted illegally online, their investment can disappear in an instant. Suddenly these independent filmmakers are competing against FREE versions of their own films. Online strangers, whose only goal is to profit from theft, show no regard for the hard work, creativity, and financial sacrifices made by these filmmakers. The public generally supports security to prevent and stop theft in stores that sell DVDs. Why not support measures to stop this theft online?

As a distributor, I've been forced to devote resources to searching for and removing pirated copies of our films online (by sending DMCA notices). It is a time-consuming and expensive process. On one recent weekend, we removed over 300 links to a newly released title from a U.S. based cyber locker (each link can represent 1000s of downloads). The next day another 180 new links for the same film appeared on the same cyber locker. We found another 100 links to the film on a gay movie blog (a site which features free download links for more than 2,000 titles). This is just in the U.S., where sites are required under current law to take down links when they receive infringement notices. Multiplying that problem by a factor of 10 would not begin to cover the volume available via offshore sites, which are currently out of the reach of U.S. law.

To be clear, the Internet is essential to what I do as a business owner. I have readily embraced the changes in film distribution technology. As a company, Wolfe Video is constantly adding new and innovative online distribution avenues for our films to ensure their availability to eager audiences worldwide. Still, despite our best efforts, it's hard to compete with free. That is why I feel passionately about the need for legislation to protect this vital marketplace for companies like mine and for filmmakers who are the most vulnerable to bad actors in the space. The artists I work with and the films I have been privileged to be associated with have changed countless lives. Without a secure, fair and functioning online market, these stories of diversity will cease to be told and this "Freedom of Speech" will be compromised. American companies that are in the business of creating and distributing content shouldn't be sacrificed to protect large-scale pirate profiteers who knowingly and blatantly flout the law and common sense.

I was happy to see that Congress has recently taken up this issue. I'm not a policy expert, but I do recognize that this is a critical first step in addressing this serious and growing threat. I encourage all creative persons to become educated and involved in this fight. And, I challenge our friends in the "Tech" world to actively assist Congress in finding solutions to reduce online piracy and profiteering. Effective legislation will ensure my colleagues, our customers and my talented and creative business partners will succeed or fail based on the merits of our products and services, rather than the whims of digital thieves.

Kathy Wolfe is the founder and CEO of Wolfe Video and Wolfe Releasing. Established in 1985, it is the oldest and largest exclusive distributor of LGBT films in the world.