Ripping For Dollars

How'd you like your client to be in the movies? Bet I could arrange it for you.

At the very least, I could shoot footage of your client and intercut it with, say, Robert De Niro's taxi driver character:

De Niro: "You talkin' to me?" Your client: "Well, yes, actually, and I've got a comprehensive plan for financial security that I'd like to discuss with you."

At the high end of the scale, we could do some chroma-key work and rotoscoping to build the entire plot around your client. How about "Harry Potter and the Secret of Non-Sedating Antihistamine Therapy"?


The sad truth is that I've seen corporate video productions that have done all that and more. One giant in the food industry proudly showed us a video stolen from the film "Independence Day", but starring instead several of their best-selling products. Another firm in the medical/pharmaceutical arena sent two sales managers to a boxing ring at a local gym, and intercut the results with clips from "Rocky" fight scenes. "Our products deliver the one-two punch!" proclaim the managers.

And don't forget the music. If I hear another rip of "I'm So Excited" used in a corporate show, I'm gonna do something desperate. We've gone out of our way to offer alternativeswe now have seven different production music libraries, including three on annual licenses and one buyout library. Still, requests for music rips are so prevalent around here that I now give a little speech about piracy, mentioning the client's corporation in the same sentence as the words "Your Honor", suggesting incarceration and ending with the phrase, "I don't look good in stripes." Clients are unimpressed.

One producer we know confided that he'd acquiesced to his clients' requests and produced a short module with a ripped music track. Standing in the machine room of a major New York facility, waiting for some dubs, he asked the staff if it was a problem for them to copy his master, to be a party to his piracy. The tech laughed heartily, and pointed to a VTR already dubbing ripped scenes for someone else's high-end sales conference opener. "Business as usual," he reportedly replied.

Professionally, I was "brought up" in a very different tradition. As an A/V producer for a large financial services company, I was taught that big corporations make great targets for copyright infringement lawsuits, and that it was incumbent upon the producer to protect the organization. I remember that using Frank Sinatra's version of "Here's To The Winners" in a motivational multi-image program carried a $15,000 price tag, but that its impact at sales conferences over the life of the license was substantial. A bargain, in other words.

We were conditioned to expect representatives of Harry Fox Associates, one of the agencies most active in copyright licensing, to drop into a hotel ballroom, any time, anywhere, to see what we're up to. There's something about the expectation of enforcement that tends to make one walk the straight and narrow.


The simple fact is that it's difficult to duck these issues today. Corporate and institutional clients arrive on producers' doorsteps with the naïve expectation that "internal use"a phrase with no legal standing whatsoeverabsolves them from all culpability. If the corporate law department could hear this self-serving rationale, they'd likely soon become ex-employees. After all, these same corporations aggressively pursue villains who package snack treats in boxes similar to their own, or who mold antacid pills in trademark-infringing colors and shapes.

Often, the copyright holders don't make it easy to be legal. Our own little company had such trouble licensing a song from a big-time Hispanic female vocalist that, in the end, we licensed only the music, and had one of our local music studios produce a new performance of it. We got the sense that the performer and her team smelled "deep pockets" when they heard the name of the corporate client; ironically, they tried to perpetrate essentially the same kind of ripoff as music piracy itself, except out in broad daylight, with heads held high.

From down here at the bottom of the food chain, things seem to be getting worse, and I'm not sure why that is. Maybe it's the ubiquity of easily accessible media; pre-owned feature films for $4.99 at the supermarket checkout tend to drop the perceived value of all movies. All I know is that flagrant infringement which would never have seen the light of day in 1985 is commonplace today, and may even be viewed as the moral right of the ripper.

Have I ever made an illegal copy of a VHS movie? Um, ahh... no comment. But certainly not recently, not since tapes and even DVD's got so cheap. I do know that there's far less incentive to copy something you can easily afford. That's a lesson the motion picture industry learned when they dropped the retail price of their films from $49.95 to $19.95 or less; the music industry, tortured by rampant piracy (to hear them tell it), has yet to learn that lesson. Is there some flat-rate licensing scheme that would equitably compensate movie and music owners for corporate video use?

Producers and editors run terrible risks every day when they use unlicensed material. In the end, though, it's their ethically challenged middle-manager corporate clients who hold the economic reins: If you won't rip it for them, there's certainly someone down the street who will. How about a corporate remake of "Public Enemy #1"?

Walter Schoenknecht can be reached via e-mail at