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Copyright on Trial

In the fall of 1999, a 25-year-old computer technician from Phoenix, Ariz., discovered that "Star Wars: Episode One" was available for free download at NataliePortman.com, an unauthorized fan site for the "Phantom Menace" star. Jason Spatafore (a.k.a., the Disman, due to his love for Disneyland) posted the film at his home page, Spata4ent.com.

Spatafore encouraged others to download the film. An arrangement with AllAdvantage.com paid him for each user who came to the site. A few weeks later, he noticed that the film had disappeared, so he posted it again in 30MB chunks. "I thought the ISP was taking the film down because the file was too big," he says. "I had no idea I was doing anything illegal."

The ISP, Xoom.com, took the film down again, and Spatafore continued to post it. But then in December, six weeks after first posting the film, a friend warned him he was infringing the copyright of Lucasfilm and that he could find himself in big trouble. His deal with AllAdvantage having earned him a total sum of $40, Spatafore abandoned his attempts to post the film. The story might have ended there. But the Disman had come to the attention of Lucasfilm. Within nine months, Spatafore had been visited by the FBI and was being prosecuted by the federal government.

Spatafore pled guilty to criminal copyright infringement and was sentenced on March 23 to two years probation and a $250 fine. He had feared much worse: Tough new laws on electronic theft imposed a potential maximum sentence of five years in jail and a $250,000 fine. But the prosecution was a stressful experience for Spatafore, and he was at a loss to explain why the U.S. federal government had singled him out for justice among the vast number of online copyright infringers. "Lucasfilm scapegoated me," Spatafore said in an interview after his court appearance. "I don't know why."

As it turns out, there are many reasons Lucasfilm targeted Spatafore. But the bottom line is that the movie industry, like the music industry, is deeply worried by the copyright free-for-all the Disman represents, and the federal government is now getting tough on the industry's behalf.

The long arm of the law draped about their shoulders might produce warm and fuzzy feelings of security among movie industry players. But critics say that the proliferation of broadband Internet access and the easy availability of video decryption code change the nature of intellectual property fundamentally — to the point where the law can provide few answers. Either way, the clash between the Disman and the FBI is at the heart of the debate over copyright in the digital era.

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