Concern about movie piracy is shifting from black-market DVD copies made overseas to Internet users at home, and unions representing thousands of studio workers are pushing federal regulators to take a stronger stand.
Last week, attorneys for the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees and four other unions asked federal regulators to stop "the epidemic that is the online theft of copyrighted works."
The legal brief sent to the Federal Communications Commission came on the final day of public comment in the agency's effort to set boundaries for regulating the Internet.
"Companies engaged in the production and distribution of audiovisual works and sound recordings employ hundreds of thousands of people, with many and scores of communities relying on large-scale film and television productions for their income," union officials stated in their letter to the commission. "However, the jobs of the guilds and unions' members …are put at serious risk by online entities that are facilitating the theft of intellectual property."
Local union representatives say they are worried about the impact on pension benefits.
George Palazzo, business representative of Burbank-based IATSE Local 729, said the bulk of the pension fund for his members comes from film and movie residuals. Other unions use residuals for direct compensation and to bolster pension funds.
"The residual is not just for actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Costner," Palazzo said. "This is for the folks behind the scenes that don't get paid that much."
Gavin Koon, a former IATSE official who like Palazzo sits on the Verdugo Workforce Investment Board, pointed out that the unions and major studios are on the same side of the issue. The studios are asking the Federal Communications Commission to make it easier to block unauthorized Internet postings of movies and shows.
Broadband providers and open-access advocates say that policing content too closely will chill creativity on the Web and hurt consumers.
Koon said modest calculations of the loss in residuals through piracy of all types is $100 million a year. Internet piracy, he said, is now about 4% of the overall problem.
"But it is growing," said Koon, adding that technological advances are making it easier to share unauthorized digital files of movies and shows. "Eventually, the technology will be compressed and figured out, and everyone knows it."
The Federal Communications Commission is studying the comments of industry players, but remains months away from announcing its proposed rules.
In a statement earlier this month, the commission's chief of staff, Edward Lazarus, offered no clue as to the direction of the agency, saying only that "all options remain on the table." .