Could a Bunch of Crazed Teenage Justin Bieber Fans Actually Be Felons? Never Say Never

As the mother of a 5th grader, I am well-versed in Justin Bieber.

I’ve been to his concert, and I enjoyed it. I know his songs, and maybe I’ve been caught letting out a “baby, baby, baby” or two. I even know that his mother’s name is Pattie and his favorite color is purple (somewhere Prince has to be saying to himself, “find your own color!”). And, of course, I shared a moment of outrage with my daughter when Justin was robbed of his Grammy by Esperanza Who? I often feel like I know Justin Bieber like I used to know Duran Duran. (For the record,Nick Rhodes was way cuter than Simon Le Bon. Quite a scary thought now, though…yikes!) The swanky hair, the smile, the dance moves, whatever “it” is, he’s got it. Even my four-year-old twins giggled with excitement as they watched Justin perform at the Grammys with “The Karate Kid” (and I don’t mean Ralph Macchio, which would have been about equally entertaining but ten times creepier).

Last week, in particular, was huge in Bieber Land. He performed at the Grammys (daughter was there, check), his inexplicably 3D biopic Never Say Never premiered nationwide, complete with a “purple carpet” Los Angeles premiere (daughter attended private advanced screening, check), and Glee aired its Justin Bieber Experience episode (come on, it’s Glee, mandatory check). Darth Vader covered his biggest hit in spoken word. Over the weekend, he won the MVP award at the NBA’s annual celebrity game (beating out NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen). A few days ago, I even saw a 50-something-year-old man at a bar scrawl “(Baby x 3) + Oh” on his cocktail napkin, then hand it to a friend who, with a few flicks of his pen, made it “(Baby x 3) + Oh No.” And Bieber boasts the best nickname for his obsessive fan-base — Beliebers — of any pop act since Clay Aiken (anyone else rememberClaymates?). What could be wrong with any of that?

More than a certain group of crazed Beliebers who attended the recent the Orlando VIP premiere of Never Say Never could have ever imagined.

After paying $30 to walk the purple carpet, attend the premiere, and spend 105 minutes squealing at Justin’s no-doubt irresistible 3D visage, some of the girls apparently decided they wanted a souvenir to take home — and, in classic, non-thinking teenage fashion, recorded portions of the film on their cell phones. While no one doubts the innocent intentions of the girls, their actions have sparked quite the debate concerning anti-piracy legislation and the propriety of the fans’ actions. Some commentators have called the girls felons, others have blamed their parents for allowing their children to commit a crime and have questioned how a true fan could steal from an artist they admire so dearly, while a third group has defended the girls actions and expressed outright contempt for Bieber’s financial success (because the fact that Bieber is a rich, spoiled “eleventeen year old” means anything goes, of course…maybe next someone can steal his $200,000 Ferrari on the theory that he can always afford another one, right?). But could these unsuspecting fans actually have committed a felony? Technically, yes.

The Artists’ Rights and Theft Protection Act of 2005 provides that “[a]ny person who, without the authorization of the copyright owner, knowingly uses or attempts to use an audiovisual recording device to transmit or make a copy of a motion picture … or any part thereof … from a performance of such work in a motion picture theater” shall be imprisoned for up to three years, and up to six years for a second offense. Additionally, the MPAA has lobbied long and hard to install anti-camcording laws across the country, with 41 states (plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) now banning camcorders from theaters.

According to the MPAA’s website, approximately ninety percent of newly released movies that are pirated can be traced to those who literally record the film in the movie theater using a digital recording device. These recordings are then reproduced and sold as internet downloads or bootleg DVDs throughout the world. As the MPAA eloquently states, “[a]ll it takes is one camcorder copy to trigger the mass reproduction and distribution of millions of illegal Internet downloads and bootlegs in global street markets just hours after a film’s release and well before it becomes available for legal rental or purchase.” Studios and artists alike lose millions upon millions of dollars each year as a result of piracy.

Now, do we really believe these True Beliebers meant Justin any harm, let alone that they were planning to set-up shop in Times Square to sell cell phone camera bootlegs of isolated scenes from Never Say Never? Of course not. And do we expect these girls to actually be prosecuted? Again, doubtful. (But, lest they rest too easily, let us not forget about those public service announcements featuring teens who were sued for downloading songs on Napster…anything’s possible.) But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some real potential harm inherent in their actions.

Setting aside the obvious fact that theft is just wrong and intellectual property is as much someone’s property as is their car or jewelry, consider this: Ditsy teenager records clip from film on her cell phone. Ditsy teenager then posts clip to her Facebook wall, which is viewed by a “friend of a friend.” “Friend of a friend” gets the brilliant idea to download the clip and put it YouTube. Before you know it, it goes viral. Now if you take this same scenario and place it in the context of an Oscar-nominated film, it becomes more significant. And as the “little clip” increases in length, the harm caused by the release of the clip, or eventually, the entire film, becomes more obvious. What may have started out as an innocent act could easily turn into an Internet disaster.

Sure, what the girls did doesn’t deserve some ridiculous penalty. And, because Bieber die-hards couldn’t possibly be satisfied by a grainy YouTube version when they can catch their hero in Imax 3D, I doubt it will have any affect on the success of the film or its ultimate DVD sales.

But shouldn’t we at least acknowledge their wrong and not condone it? Maybe just this one time? (Justin’s first single, in case you didn’t know. Which, as of press time, has been viewed on YouTube approximately 218.4 million times. Not a joke. God help us all.)

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3 Responses to “Could a Bunch of Crazed Teenage Justin Bieber Fans Actually Be Felons? Never Say Never”

  1. GregSJ says:

    “And as the “little clip” increases in length, the harm caused by the release of the clip, or eventually, the entire film, becomes more obvious.”

    I think the heart of the legal controversy is the assumption that the posting of the clip causes “harm”. Studios pay millions of dollars advertising films which involve “posting” of clips on tv shows, websites, and more. Thus one could argue that the posting of the clips benefit the studio rather than harm it (otherwise why would they pay so much for it).

    The end of your post seems concerned with demonstrating that what these fans did is malum in se rather than malum prohibitum. Thus shouldn’t we (as a society) be concerned with at what point the posting of a clip causes harm? I think there is a case to be made that the malum prohibitum is necessary, but it feels like we (again as a society) are making the arguments ignoring the fact that there may be no moral wrong occuring.

    Intellectual property is as much someone’s property as their car or jewelry. However, posting a short video clip of a movie may be better analogized to Bieber’s fans washing his Ferrari for him than stealing it:
    He still owns the Ferrari and he received for free a service he otherwise would have paid for; just as the production company still owns the rights to distribute the movie and received for free a service it otherwise would have to pay for.

    If that turns out to be the case, then shouldn’t we take a hard look at the Artists’ Rights and Theft Protection Act of 2005 and the anti-camcording laws to maker sure they are narrowly tailored to prevent the harm intended without otherwise affecting our rights as a society.

    Long story short, yes the Beliebers committed a felony, but did their actions cause any harm and if they didn’t should they be illegal.

  2. Julia Haye says:

    First, thank you for reading our blog, and an even bigger thank you for taking the time to comment. We always appreciate and encourage further discussion. I understand what you are saying in the context of the Justin Bieber film and, yes, it can be said that the fans’ actions actually may do more to promote the film than harm it. So, you ask, why should they be illegal? When production companies and studios choose to release trailers and advertisements promoting their films, they meticulously choose and control the content that is released and how it is portrayed. So, for example, instead of one of the undoubtedly many concert scenes from Bieber’s film, what if the small scene filmed (and possibly shared on YouTube) is the spoiler of a suspense thriller with a $100 million budget? Those same few seconds in length could carry a very different meaning and the harm caused could be great if a film is, in essence, ruined for its viewing audience. This, I doubt, would be considered good advertising. Without a bright line rule, there would be no consistent way to police such activities. Moreover, when the control is left to the average viewer and his cell phone camera, there is no way to monitor an acceptable, non-harmful clip release from a potentially harmful one. Ultimately, the control should remain in the hands of the owner of the content. The discretion and, hopefully, sound judgment, should be exercised when determining whether it is proper or necessary to prosecute someone for camcording. In this situation, likely nothing will happen to the fans who recorded a few scenes of Bieber’s film. But is there really a way to decipher the difference between harmful and unharmful camcording ahead of time?

  3. GregSJ says:

    Julia,
    Thanks for responding to my comment. I really appreciate the open discourse as I feel that is the best way to truly understand an issue. While I generally agree with you that short clips could be harmful and that when the control is left to average viewers there is no way to monitor acceptable, non-harmful clips form potentially harmful ones, I still am unsure as to whether this justifies allowing content providers to decide that someone who has done no harm should still be prosecuted for a felony. Unfortunately both sides often do no have sound judgment (as evidenced by the Samantha Tumpach situation last year).

    Furthermore it occurred to me that a similar harm can be created by a blogger, fan, or movie critic blogging, tweeting, or otherwise revealing the crux of a suspense thriller.

    Despite the potential for those activities to do harm there is no bright line rule nor is there a way to decipher the difference between harmful and unharmful posts about the movie ahead of time.

    While these activities are arguably fundamentally different in that they copy the idea rather than the expression of the idea, they have the same potential to cause harm and yet as far as I know are not punishable.

    In the end, the issue for me is the criminalization of a property crime without having to prove intent. To the best of my knowledge the difference between the torts trespass to chattels/conversion and the crimes of theft/larceny/etc. is that the defendant must have intent to be guilty of a criminal offense where as no intent is required to be liable for the tort. Since the same harm to the studios can occur regardless of whether there is camcorders (as far as the release of a crucial scene to the movie) then shouldn’t the test on whether the person is guilty of a felony or merely civilly liable be intent? Or is there something that I am missing?

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