How Pirates Stole Lola: Ellen Seidler Explains the Intricacies of Online Theft at CMW 2011

Clara Klein is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Ellen Seidler is a reluctant anti-piracy advocate.  Though advocacy was not her initial intention when she released her film And Then Came Lola, (co-directed by Megan Siler), her first-hand experience with piracy and its heart-breaking effects on creators has compelled her to “speak out and speak up” against online theft.  It also brought her to Canadian Music Week 2011 as the key note speaker for the Global Forum, which this year focused on combating piracy as a creative community.

Seidler, an American filmmaker with a B.A. in Fine Arts from Harvard University and an M.A. in Journalism from UC Berkeley, released And Then Came Lola one year ago.  Within 24 hours of its release it was available on pirate hosting sites and was almost immediately illegally downloaded by an astounding number of users.  She stopped counting at 35,000.  Why was this happening?  Was it because Seidler’s film was so great, so popular?  Her modest answer: “no”.  Piracy, she explained to the crowd, has become a BIG black market business.  To fully understand the problem, Seidler took the Forum participants through the piracy business model.

Technology has facilitated a steady stream of income for pirates with little overhead or risk and a “world-wide, willing customer base”.  People upload the films for free, although sometimes they are paid in points or cash, providing the hosting sites with free or next-to-free content to profit from through advertisements and subscription charges for upgrades.  The new trend sees the traditional torrent “file-sharing” sites giving way to cyber lockers, with new cloud-based cyber lockers popping up every day.  Seidler is confident that most of this content is stolen.

Further incentives and sustenance for illegal download hosting sites come from payment processors (credit card companies, etc), who provide pirates with easy and anonymous payment services.   Similarly, ad networks, the largest being Google AdSense, as well as their clients, profit from pirate sites who abundantly share links to their ads.

The irony of this messy situation astounds Seidler, who spotted Netflix ads on multiple pirate site pages offering And Then Came Lola.  Netflix sponsored her film.

Generally, advertisers claim that they don’t have much control over where their ads go since it is the ad networks they sign on to that place the ads.  Seidler contacted Netflix, and after initially ignoring her, they claimed that the goal of their ads was to convince people to use Netflix over pirate sites.  Interesting.  She’s had more luck with Microsoft, however, who seems to be taking more responsibility in preventing inadvertent placements on pirate sites using technology to monitor the good sites from the bad.

So what’s the solution?  According to Seidler, there is no absolute solution.  She likens the legal attempts at a solution of the United States Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) to holding an umbrella while standing under Niagara Falls.  She has sent hundreds of DMCA notices to host sites, who take down the flagged version of the video only to have another version posted hours later.  Google has responded to Seidler with warning emails that her notice will be forwarded to the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, who claim that DMCA notices have the effect of “chilling” free speech.

For Seidler, the best thing for filmmakers, actors, musicians and behind-the-scenes contributors to do is speak out, speak up, engage in an online dialogue with the public and take the profit out of piracy.  Creators need to put a face and a story to the effects of online theft.  Yes it’s hard to compete with free, but if consumers realize the harm involved in piracy, perhaps they will rethink their priorities and “give up their latte for a day” to support the arts.

Seidler made it clear at the outset of her address that this was not about her, her film, her experience, but about the struggle all creators currently face against rampant online theft.  The heartbreak is in the amount of effort, time and money that creators put into producing content that is so readily discounted when it is stolen by online consumers.  Clearly music and films have value to consumers, otherwise they wouldn’t want to steal them.  But that value was born from a great deal of effort, and when it is undermined and disrespected, jobs are lost.  Creativity is discouraged.  Contributions to human development are stifled.

To show your support for content creators, join (“like”) the Balanced Copyright Facebook group and check out Ellen’s blog.

You can find more information about And Then Came Lola and how to purchase it legally here.

  1. It’s hard to compete with free — true, but there is another dimension. Consumers perceive large corporations (whether in film, music, tv or publishing) as overcharging for online content and attempting to manipulate the market by controlling release windows, territories, etc. To steal the content produced by large corporations is regarded (wrongly) as a victimless crime. It is too much to expect the consumer, once the piracy habit has formed, to make the effort to distinguish between the multinational and the micro-creator who put his/her life into one film, novel, or whatever. I agree that part of the answer is to educate consumers, but another factor is to persuade corporations to reform their marketing so that their content is available at a reasonable price, everywhere in the world, on all platforms, on one global release date. This is probably not going to happen any day soon and that is one reason why many creators are turning to, or at least thinking about, small-scale joint-venture production, self-publishing and the like. It is tough; and tougher in audiovisual than in music or publishing, but it is going to be a big factor in online culture and entertainment over the next few years. Get ready! Bernie Corbett, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain

  2. I was also in attendance at Ms.Seidler’s presentation and it was an excellent keynote speech. I echo this article’s author’s recommendation to check out her blog as well which contains a wealth of information regarding all the players involved in the various stages of movie piracy, from the uploaders to the advertisers.

    It was also an interesting contrast to the usual analyses of unauthorized file-sharing that we have developed from a legal perspective. While lawyers will usually begin from the primary act of infringement and build a sphere of liability extending to intermediaries, what Ms. Seidler has done is to quite literally follow the money and examine who profits the most when an illegal copy is made. Perhaps coming at remedies to the piracy problem from both of these spectra would be useful to arrive at a truly effective solution.

  3. Ellen Seidler’s dilemma is one of the huge questions of copyright law that is being examined in many countries.

    The Internet has given rise to a vast number of business models that rely on content and profit from content, but do not themselves generate content or funnel revenues to creators. Seidler’s experience takes it to yet another level: authorized distributors advertising on pirate sites, thus providing them with revenues, and, arguably, a veneer of legitimacy.

    In a modern copyright setting, ISP safe harbours and secondary liability causes of action should work in lockstep to facilitate the authorized distribution of copyright works, and to create powerful disincentives for those whose business models are reliant on the unauthorized distribution of copyright works. In the U.S. and Australia, the YouTube and iiNet litigation show arguably that the legislative safe harbours are drawn in too accommodating a manner at present, as each case discloses mass infringements taking place via an intermediary’s system, but only a reactive response to the damage caused.
    (See the decisions at and

    I can’t say I can name the sweet spot for this policy point, but it is definitely an issue that Parliament must take seriously as it engages in copyright reform.

  4. Thank you, Ms. Klein, for so eloquently sharing the substance of Ms. Seidler’s presentation. It is truly remarkable (not to mention disappointing) that after all these years, we are still being forced to explain the obvious: it is simply bad economic policy to allow some people in our society to steal from others. Shame on the credit card companies, the advertisers, the ad networks, the ISP’s and everyone else who turns a blind eye to the theft that they are facilitating and from which they are profiting. I believe such activity is called “aiding and abetting”…

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