When Roddy McDowall Was Busted by the FBI for Pirating Films


In a report dated July 22, 1975, the Federal Bureau of Investigation recorded the details behind one of the biggest raids of a pirated movie collection in the agency’s history. The previous December, agents had descended on an opulent home in North Hollywood and seized more than 160 film canisters and more than 1000 video cassettes from the garage, all unlawfully copied for use in private screenings. The Bureau estimated the collection to be worth more than $5 million.

After boxes of films were hauled out of the home and into FBI vehicles, the owner of the collection was interviewed. Rather than face serious charges, he agreed to inform investigators about how he acquired his library and who else he knew that might be in possession of similar goods.

The film Giant, starring James Dean, had been given to him by actor Rock Hudson; Arthur P. Jacobs, producer of the long-running Planet of the Apes film series, was another source. Other names were redacted in the FBI’s official document released to the public.

The source of this one-man analog pirate operation was Roddy McDowall, a former child star who gained notoriety for his portrayal of Cornelius and Caesar in the Apes franchise. And while his criminal record would remain clean, his willingness to out other celebrity movie collectors would come at considerable personal cost.

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Although the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has fought its biggest battles against copyright infringement in the age of broadband file-sharing, film piracy was a problem long before anyone was wired for internet access. In the 1920s, exhibitors tried to get away with cutting studios out of their share by screening films past the agreed-upon distribution windows; projectionists would sometimes make duplicate prints from originals, selling them for a profit. By the 1960s, consumer-use camcorders were being surreptitiously brought into theaters to point directly at the screen, a practice that endured for decades.

Fed up with the theft of their content, which may have cost them an estimated billion dollars in revenue annually, the studio-backed MPAA began a vigorous fight against infringement in the early 1970s. Bootleg sellers were cornered and litigated: if the government could prove they profited from the sale of a bootleg film—which could carry a price tag in the hundreds of dollars—fines and jail time were put on the table.

It’s possible the MPAA and the FBI didn’t stop to consider that some sizable collections would be found inside the industry’s own inner circle. But actors, producers, and studio personnel had something that conventional pirates had a difficult time accessing: original, high-quality prints of major studio films. Some would be loaned to talent for private screenings and then returned; others could be purchased outright, although never for duplication purposes.

In a written statement handed over to the FBI, McDowall said he had been collecting prints since the 1960s, when the actor had the money and means to begin acquiring personal copies of both his favorite films and those he had personally appeared in. The object, he explained, was to study the performances of other actors and to guard against the possibility that some might wind up being lost to neglect or age. The latter was not an unfounded fear: studios had been notoriously negligent in film preservation in the early part of the century.

McDowall eventually ended up with some 337 different films, many of which he transferred to cassette for easier storage and in the belief they might be better preserved that way. (Since his collection predates the mid-1970s introductions of VHS and Betamax, it’s possible he used Sony’s U-Matic magnetic tape technology, an expensive early format that never caught on with the general public.)

When McDowall grew tired of a certain film, he would sell it to a fellow collector, generally for whatever price he recalled paying for it in the first place. Three unnamed films, he wrote, once cost him a total of $705. He specifically recalled wanting to own Escape from the Planet of the Apes so that he could have a copy of his character’s death scene: 20th Century Fox offered to sell him prints of the Apes series along with How Green Was My Valley. Unhappy with the quality, he declined.

Instead, the FBI raid found films like My Friend Flicka, Lassie Come Home, and hundreds of others. Rather than face criminal penalties, McDowall told authorities that singer Mel Torme, actor Dick Martin, and Rock Hudson were known to be collectors. He also had business dealings with Ray Atherton, a high-profile bootlegger the government had been targeting for some time. His disclosure of those contacts probably saved McDowall from being the first celebrity movie pirate to be charged with a crime.


For the MPAA, the resulting seizure of McDowall’s collection—the FBI never named its tipster, or what led them to McDowall—was significant. In their game of criminal investigation, a well-known party acted like a warning flare to other pirates. Media coverage of McDowall’s incident forced bootleggers to burrow further underground, driving up the prices for films.

The FBI didn’t pursue Hudson or any of the other parties McDowall named; the big fish was Atherton, who was charged but had his conviction overturned in 1977. Roughly 20 other dealers were indicted, with several convicted of conspiracy; the court proceedings were sometimes livened by the appearance of celebrities like Gene Hackman, who testified on behalf of the government to drive home the economic impact of pirated films.

Only a few short years later, the Supreme Court would rule that videotaping movies and television using home cassette recorders was not copyright infringement—so long as it was used for noncommercial purposes. The decision angered the MPAA, which saw the home video industry as a major threat to box office receipts. Later, they'd profit handsomely from sales of videocassettes.

It was too late for McDowall. While he escaped any criminal trouble, his reputation in the industry reportedly took a hit because of his willingness to point his finger at his fellow collectors. According to a friend, McDowall was considered a “rat” and was so crestfallen by the incident that he stopped screening films in his home, his garage empty of the films he had spent well over a decade compiling. They remained the property of the FBI.

Switzerland Just Made It Illegal to Boil Live Lobsters

No, lobsters don’t scream when you toss them into a pot of boiling water, but as far as the Swiss government is concerned, they can still feel pain. The path most lobsters take to the dinner plate is supposedly so inhumane that Switzerland has banned boiling lobsters alive unless they are stunned first, The Guardian reports.

The new law is based on assertions from animal rights advocates and some scientists that crustaceans like lobsters have complex nervous systems, making death by boiling incredibly painful. If chefs want to include lobster on their menus, they’re now required to knock them out before preparing them. Acceptable stunning methods under Swiss law include electric shock and the “mechanical destruction” of the lobster’s brain (i.e. stabbing it in the head).

The government has also outlawed the transportation of live lobsters on ice or in icy water. The animals should instead be kept in containers that are as close to their natural environment as possible until they’re ready for the pot.

Proponents of animal rights are happy with the decision, but others, including some scientists, are skeptical. The data still isn’t clear as to whether or not lobsters feel pain, at least in the way people think of it. Bob Bayer, head of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute, told Mental Floss in 2014 that lobsters “sense their environment, but don’t have the intellectual hardware to process pain.”

If you live in a place where boiling lobsters is legal, but still have ethical concerns over eating them, try tossing your lobster in the freezer before giving it a hot water bath. Chilling it puts it to sleep and is less messy than butchering it while it’s still alive.

[h/t The Guardian]

Pop Culture
Why Mickey Mouse Could Soon Be in the Public Domain

Mickey Mouse debuted to the world in the 1928 animated short Steamboat Willie, and has since transformed into an icon recognized around the world. But the mouse’s status as Disney's exclusive property is under threat. As Ars Technica reports, Steamboat Willie is set to enter the public domain in 2024, and unlike in previous years, there have been no moves from Congress to stop that from happening. Once it does, in theory, anyone could use Mickey's image for free.

This is the third time the cartoon has been on the verge of losing its copyright protection. The first came in the 1970s, back when copyright terms only lasted 56 years. That meant every book, song, and movie made in 1923 was scheduled to lose its protected status in 1979, and Steamboat Willie would follow on its 56th anniversary in 1984. But in 1976, under pressure from companies like Disney, Congress extended the statute to 75 years, keeping all works made after 1923 from becoming public domain until 1998 or later. Mickey remained safely out of the public domain for another two decades. Then, when copyright terms were again scheduled to expire in 1998, Congress extended them a second time, this time to 95 years.

Now, the clock is ticking down for these older works once again as the 2018 expiration date of that copyright extension nears. Only this time, it looks like Congress may let them become public property without a fight.

Today’s constituents tend to care more about copyright law now than they did in 1976 or even in 1998. The rise of online streaming and easily accessible pirated content has made the issue more relevant to the life of the average person than ever before. The defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in 2012 made this clear to legislators. That bill, which would have empowered law enforcement to punish or block sites sharing pirated content, was so controversial that it sparked protests across the web. Because of the sheer scale of that public response, lawmakers are now hesitant to change any existing copyright protections, including those set to expire on January 1, 2019.

But even if those protections expire, Disney could still find a way to prevent rival studios from using Mickey’s image when 2024 rolls around. While copyrights are designed to be temporary, trademarks have the potential for serious lasting power. That’s because copyrights only protect a single work of artistic expression (in this case, the film Steamboat Willie), while trademarks are attached to images and logos that represent a brand (so Mickey Mouse, the character). As long as Disney can prove that Mickey has evolved beyond his first screen appearance into a symbol that’s synonymous with its corporation, he’ll remain a protected property. And if you take a look at their theme parks, cruise ships, media, and the dozens of Hidden Mickeys they've hidden in their movies, you’ll see that they can easily make that case.

But few works of art made in the 1920s have taken the same path to corporate dominance as Mickey Mouse, even other works made famous by Disney (like Winnie the Pooh, first introduced in A.A. Milne's stories in 1926). Even if Disney manages to protect Mickey, the public should have a big new batch of copyright-free content to access in the next few years.

[h/t Ars Technica]


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