The Biggest Hollywood Crime of the Decade

Over a million people have downloaded the leaked print of Wolverine. Now people are selling DVDs of it on the streets of San Francisco and New York City. Who pays for this crime, and how?

First, the question is what exactly was the crime committed? A person or group of people got an early version of the movie Wolverine - pre-effects, and according to FOX pre-final edits. (Harry Knowles at Ain't It Cool News spoke to a producer on the film who confirmed that the leaked version was several months old.) Then our thieves put a digital file of it up online, where it promptly got circulated out into the public BitTorrent sites.

We also know that the leak was almost certainly an inside job, coming from somebody working at Fox or one of their partners. Industry insiders say it's the only big budget film that's ever been leaked this early online.

So what's the punishment for a crime like this?

According to the US Criminal Code, a person like our thief:

Shall be imprisoned not more than 3 years, or fined in the amount set forth in this title, or both, if the offense consists of the reproduction or distribution of 10 or more copies or phonorecords of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of $2,500 or more.

So far nobody has been brought up on charges, though Fox columnist Roger Friedman may have been fired for reviewing the leaked version. Still no official word on whether he's been fired, or just reprimanded severely.

Though Fox officials said initially that it would be easy to catch the people behind the heist, no arrests so far. Reports have come in that a recent raid on a Dallas data center may have been related to the FBI's investigation of the Wolverine leak. (UPDATE: The FBI has revealed the raid was not related to the Wolverine case.)

What's likely to happen when our culprit is caught? If the 2003 case involving a leaked rough copy of the Hulk movie is any guide, our lawbreaker could get jail time. The Ang Lee Hulk movie was leaked to file-sharing networks in 2003 about two weeks before the movie hit screens. Advance press was incredibly bad, and studio exes claimed that the leak hurt their box office returns. Eventually Feds tracked the leak down to New Jersey man Kerry Gonzalez, who pled guilty to felony charges of copyright infringement. He was ultimately sentenced to 6 months home confinement, 3 years probation, and about $7 thousand in fines.

I'm guessing that our Wolverine thieves may not get such lenient treatment, partly because so many more people are using file-sharing networks these days. In 2003, releasing Hulk online meant hitting a small audience, but in 2009 it means hitting most of the world. Audiences across the globe are now spoiled for the film. I think Fox (rightfully) believes that audiences who download the Wolverine movie might choose not to go see it in theaters because the extremely rough print seems so flawed. So money will be lost.

But an interesting counterpoint to this scenario was the leak of Fiona Apple's unfinished album Extraordinary Machine in 2005. The singer's record company had mothballed the 2003 album because it wasn't considered commercially viable, but when a few songs from it leaked onto the internet it became a cult sensation - finally making it onto mainstream radio. It also received a huge groundswell of support, and eventual commercial release, though many critics pointed out that the studio was ultimately correct that the album could not achieve the same commercial success her previous albums had. (Indeed the album sold fewer copies than her previous albums by several hundreds of thousands.)

Regardless of whether the Wolverine leak will lead to the resounding failure of the film ala the Hulk scenario, or will ironically buoy the film's fanbase ala the Fiona Apple one, there is no denying that the crime committed here is one of the gravest in the sections of the criminal code devoted to copyright infringement. The only way for the crime to become more serious would be if the thieves had tried to sell the movie or if it were not the first time they had committed such a crime.

As we wait for the Feds and MPAA to track down the person or people behind this heist, there's no doubt that we're looking at one of the biggest Hollywood crimes of the decade.