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Why Piracy is Good and Copyright Sucks: An Excerpt From “Sell Your Own Damn Movie!”

Why Piracy is Good and Copyright Sucks: An Excerpt From “Sell Your Own Damn Movie!”

Like the headline says, the following is the (fiercely held) opinion of one Lloyd Kaufman, founder of Troma Films. His most recent book, “Sell Your Own Damn Movie!” is now available in paperback.

I met a Troma fan in Florida a few years ago who told me how he used to get eight Netflix DVDs at a time, keep them for a day or two while he downloaded them to his computer and then return them for eight more. Once he had the digital files, he would make copies for his friends, asking about $2 for the cost of the blank DVD and the effort.

One night, while extremely high, he had figured out that, based on the number of movies he had copied and the penalty for each one, if caught, he would owe the government about $2.5 million in fines and face the rest of his life in prison.

Now, for someone who had already sold himself to the government in the form of federal student loans for film school, the prospect of an extra $2.5 million was pretty frightening. He gave up the pirate DVD business and started selling weed instead, as there were fewer risks involved. That was how we met. Last I heard, he was in jail for selling drugs, but he’ll be out sooner than if he had been caught selling $2 DVDs of “I Know Who Killed Me” to his friends.

Thomas Jefferson would have been appalled at this story. And not just because I think he would have liked trashy Lindsay Lohan movies. But because Thomas Jefferson believed that all art should belong to the public. For him, public domain was a large, thriving democracy, while copyright was a fat king thousands of miles away eating puddings and meat pies.

Unfortunately, we have reversed this with current law. Now copyright is king, while public domain has been relegated to obscurity. Thomas Jefferson, who was against copyright and said himself, “Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property,” finally agreed to compromise and include the issue of patents (and, by interpretation, copyright law) in the Constitution:

The Congress shall have Power … To promote the Progress of Science
and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors
the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

First of all, let’s understand that authors meant writers. No heavy metal singer or filmmaker was assumed to be covered under this law. And by “limited times,” Jefferson meant 14 years. That meant that if you invented something or wrote a book, you had 14 years to make back the money that you spent and make a profit. After that, the invention or work would become part of the public domain and other people would be able to improve on it.

That’s exactly what happened when Edison didn’t secure an international patent for his early film projector! Everyone in Europe, including those smarter and more passionate than Edison, had the opportunity to improve on his design and create the film industry that we know and love today!

In fact, while Edison was shooting his films in New Jersey, some bright folks had the idea to get out of New Jersey and New York and head to California to make their movies. It wasn’t because they loved the beach; it was because they wanted to be farther away from Edison so he would have a harder time enforcing his patents.

And there’s the irony—the entire Hollywood studio system was based on evading patent law, yet now they are the strictest enforcers! They are the ones suing sweaty prepubescent fanboys (and their parents) for downloading copies of “The Hurt Locker”!

Once patent and copyright law had been written into the Constitution, it was decided that everything created before the law would be considered public domain. That’s why the writings of Plato and Homer are free for anyone to use.

But considering that the ancient Greeks created democracy and civilization, you would think they would have created copyright law if they had wanted to. The fact that they didn’t makes me think they would have supported truly independent art. In fact, I may start calling myself a modern-day Socrates!* ( Like Socrates, I want to drink poison and die. But unlike Socrates, I am a chicken. Or at least a (Night of the) Chicken (Dead). (Shameless plug.)

So with Jefferson’s 14-year copyright, everything seemed fine. But then a man named Walt Disney created a little shit named Mickey Mouse, and everything changed.


In 1928, Mickey Mouse appeared in the first sound-synchronized cartoon, Steamboat Willie , which was a parody (in Disnenglish, a copyright infringement) of a Buster Keaton film, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Mickey Mouse became an instant star and Walt Disney’s meal ticket. By 1956, when “Steamboat Willie” was all set to enter the public domain, Disney had become a powerhouse corporation, and it interceded on little Mickey’s behalf:

Disney Executive: You see, Senator, if “Steamboat Willie” were to belong to the public, they would pretty much own Mickey Mouse, too. And we can’t let that happen.

Senator: No, no. We must protect Mickey.

Disney Executive: What we need, Senator, is an extension of the copyright law. That way, we can keep Mickey safe.

Senator: Yes, yes. We must protect Mickey.

Disney Executive: Yes, Senator, we must protect Mickey.

The Disney executive puts away his hypnotist materials, leaves a pile of cash on the table, and leaves. The hypnotized senator wakes up with the overwhelming urge to protect Mickey Mouse. Days later, copyright law is extended.

Buster Keaton, however, continues to receive food stamps.

This scene is repeated in 1984 and 2003. “Steamboat Willie” will remain the intellectual property of Disney until 2023, almost 100 years after it was created and many, many years after the last person who worked on it became snail food. And at some point before 2023, I’m guessing the copyright laws will be extended once again.

An interesting little twist to this whole story, which was sent to me by, is that someone at Disney discovered in the 1990s that “Steamboat Willie” may actually be in the public domain already. This was due to a mistake in the wording of the original copyright. A law student at Arizona State University investigated this claim and agreed. Then another law student at Georgetown wrote another paper confirming the claim. At this point, Disney threatened to sue the student and the claim hasn’t been uttered since.

I’m not advocating breaking the law. I can’t, because then if you do break the law, you can come back and say, “Kaufman told me to,” and that would be a gigantic goiter in the ass for me.

So I’m not telling you to become a pirate and break the law. What I am saying is what we need is to once again make public domain the Earth and demote copyright to a dwarf planet.

NOTE FROM LLOYD’S ASSISTANT: I don’t think you need to say this, since filmmakers didn’t exist at this point.

**LLOYD’S RESPONSE: I’m still operating under the theory that film was invented by the Chinese thousands of years ago.

****ASSISTANT’S RESPONSE: Whatever. Lloyd sucks balls.

******NOTE FROM FOOTNOTE GUY: Uh, should I take this out? Whatever, fuck it. I think Lloyd sucks balls, too.

For more on the copyright debate, check out “Rip: A Remix Manifesto” (courtesy our parent company, SnagFilms):

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is it legal to sell pirated copies of public domain movies like night of the living dead


I believe that if you pirate things good for you. Go ahead just don't do it too much. Also DO NOT sell them. Just use them for you and thats it, if you want to loan (not sell) them to your friends.


This is my way of looking at life. Part of it anyway. Which one would you rather do?
A. Download movies (and maybe songs) for free
B. Download movies (and maybe songs) for free AND sell them

I am very sure that everyone will say stealing, piracy and so on are bad. However, think of it this way. Some countries do not have the opportunity at all to watch certain movies, play certain games and so on IF there are limitations OR exclusives which occurs MOST of the time. In other words, there are some of these things which will never reach other countries at all that many would have NO CHOICE but to download and play RATHER than go insane or to go to THAT particular country JUST to buy that certain game.

Long story short: Do not limit and so on too much. Listen to the people sometimes and grant their wishes even if they are wrong. Why? After all, they ARE your customers/consumers, even if they are pirates or thieves, whichever fits but whatever. That's all.

P.S.: The world has a stronger chance of it being ended by mankind much more than natural disasters at this rate.

Christopher Dante

I thought copyright was your right to copy anything you wanted.

Random Person

(-_-) Copyright can be downright awful sometimes. For example, if someone is just using music to support this person and does it for free (and buys the actual C.D.) I think that is all right, but the stupid government gives them a fine anyways. It can be good, like punishing someone who is pirating with BAD intentions. There’s not much good things about copyrights,though. I think that copyright is a bad thing most of the time!!!


Profoundly inarticulate and unconvincing.


Well, I’m sold. Anyone know where I can download a copy of his book?

James Petty

I don’t know much about copyright and/or piracy laws. I’m a filmmaker not a lawyer. I do know that it can be a pain is the ass from any perspective. I also know that Lloyd Kaufman knows a thing or two about making and distributing independent films. And he’
s got one hell of a sense of humor. So, I for one, am looking forward to reading the rest of this book to gain some of his knowledge and most likely have a few laughs doing so.


Good read. I’ve been reading Lloyd’s stuff since I found Troma’s Comcast channel

Rob Shaver

@Ron: You said, “The economics of filmmaking are very simple.” and then went on to detail one way that films can be made … the “old business model” … to which there were plenty of exceptions.

But the digital technology including the Internet has made new models possible. After the first digital “thing” has been made the marginal cost of making more is zero. Huge industries have been built around the idea that copying is expensive. Now that the reality has changed they’re trying to preserve the status quo through legislation. They’re trying to raise the cost through law suites, fines, fear and incontinence.

I understand that impulse but I also see that it stifles new ideas and new business models that take advantage of the new digital realities. So I agree with you that copyright laws need to change but I’m afraid that our leaders have shown that they are much more responsive to the big players with deep pockets.


So, forgive me in advance for being ignorant to a whole stew of legislation and history of law-making. I don’t know a whole lot about copyright laws, and, being a student filmmaker, I haven’t had to concern myself much with the legality of my work.

However, that being said, what seems like the biggest issue to me (and what Lloyd was trying to allude to in his article) is the copyrighting of IDEAS. It’s fine and dandy to want to make money from a film–we all want at least enough money to live, and most of us want more than that. But it seems to me that there could easily be some sort of royalty laws or legislation that charges people who use the ideas/aesthetics/characters of an “author’s” work–thereby providing filmmakers/writers/programmers/etc. with a livelihood, but also providing the public with the rights to their ideas.

The biggest issue I see raised in this article is the idea of “authorship” in an increasingly globalized, collaborative age. Most projects of any sort these days are the work of 10s or 100s or 1000s of people from all over the globe. Ideas, legally attained or not, are everywhere thanks to the internet. It’s hard to truly say that one person or even one company completely “owns” the rights to an idea.

Kaufman touches on this a little bit here when he discuss some of the issues surrounding net neutrality:

Ron Merk

Okay, okay! Let’s put a little perspective on this set of arguments. For those of us who are not content to post our “home movies” and other low/no budget stuff on Facebook, and who want to actually make a living making films, the issue of copyright and public domain are very important as a means of securing that our work is protected and not copied for free, and yes, so that we can use material from the work of others (after a reasonable amount of time in which their work is secure) to create new works. It’s so strange that people seem to come down on one side or the other in this debate. The economics of filmmaking are very simple. You have an idea. You determine how much it will cost and find the money (hopefully), and then you exploit the finished film through some means of distribution, whether you do DIY or use “the system.” Your ability to finance a film is in the “real world” based on your ability to ultimately get the money back and make ANOTHER FILM. What part of that idea don’t people get?! If we want to make films with no budgets, fine, let people copy them. But if we have to work hard, raise a REAL budget, and work years on a film, I don’t think it’s fair that anyone can copy it for free. I don’t want to work at a day job in order to make my films. So, here’s the idea. Get Congress to re-write the copyright laws. If a film cannot make back it’s money in a reasonable period of time (copyright term could be 14, 28 or 56 years, like under the old law), then let it go into the public domain. If we want to make material from new films available for “re-use under fair use” let’s put this into the law, too, not as a “defense” but as a right. How about this? No clips may be used at all for 5 years. If clips are used it must be with the permission of those appearing in the clips (actors, etc. have rights, too, to their own image and privacy). Then limit the length of the clips to 10 seconds maximum. If all those “creative types” out there who are “mashing” material can’t work within that frame, then I’ll just refer to them as what they are, selfish thieves. What I create should be mine, for a period of time. I don’t create so that mindless amateurs can re-cut what I make into even more mindless clip reels or music videos. It takes skill and hard work to create something, and it should not be so easily tossed on the trash heap of fair use. It’s time that some balance came to these issues, and this means re-writing the law, even if it means that Disney loses its control on Mickey Mouse. He’s been around since 1929, and I agree that at some point those films should be in the public domain. Probably should have happened before the most recent copyright extension act saved poor Mickey from the hands of those who would use him in a way the Disney organization might not like. Time to look at this issue again, with the lawmakers in Washington finally seeing both sides of the argument, and then writing laws that make sense to everyone. We all have rights and they should be protected, no matter what side of this debate you chose to sit upon.


@Lloyd: Jefferson “compromised” and “included” copyright in the Constitution? Jefferson wasn’t even at the Constitutional Convention; he was in France at the time. He had little to do with its writing.


Mr. Kaufman,

Your statements that Thomas Jefferson was against copyright and that he believed that all art should belong to the public are at best incomplete, and by most evidence completely wrong. You quote Jefferson’s statement that “Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.” It is important to note each of the words used as well as the sentiments that followed and preceded them. The full letter may be found at

The letter reveals that Jefferson was addressing whether inventions or intellectual property was protected “in nature.” He accurately pointed out that there was no such property right “in nature.” Interestingly, he makes a similarly accurate observation that “nature” does not protect a property interest in “an acre of land.” He went on to observe that such property rights in both inventions and land may be protected by “society.” He proceeded to note that it is up to each society “according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody” to determine whether to protect such property rights.

As for Jefferson’s thoughts on how the United States “society” should address the matter in the Constitution, for convenience, I would direct you to the following informed inquiry.$2

The information set forth at the link provided above shows that while Jefferson was hostile to UNLIMTED intellectual property rights, he was not against protection of copyright, and did not believe that intellectual property should be devoted immediately into the public domain. In fact, he repeatedly endorsed a limited copyright, even going so far as to propose an amendment addressing the time-limited nature of such rights which was intended to be included in the Bill of Rights.

Other historical documents on the subject of how the United States “society” should address intellectual property in the Constitution may be found at

mad hiddy

Filmmakers and studios have been spending the past 20 some odd years re releasing their movies over, and over, and over again because they know people would buy into it. Now that people are downloading, suddenly the internet is considered a threat because a lot of people are starting to wake up. Those in Hollywood make so much money already, so why do they care? It’s become the same greed that oil and lumber tycoons has dribbled its way into the entertainment industry. Art died when it became about business. Money and deadlines ruin all beautiful things.


Absolutely agree, Ron. I don’t think ANYBODY here is arguing that there should be no copyright protection for new works, especially indie films. The argument is that copyright should eventually expire, particularly if there is no attempt whatsoever to market a work for 40 years! The idea that the rights to a product should remain the property of whoever created it, and their children, and their children’s children (hallelujah) for all eternity is preposterous, and a relatively recent notion. If you can’t figure out how to make money on something after 14 years or 24 years, and you don’t care to do it just for the enjoyment of others, then let somebody else give it a try, and keep the government out of it!


In the interest of historical accuracy, DVDs were not developed until the end of the last century, so the technology is less than 20 years old, of course, but VCRs have been around since the 70s. There are many films that were never released in either format, rarely if ever shown on TV, in decent condition even though never digitally remastered, and not tied up by legal challenges. It would not be prudent to start listing the titles here, but every classic film fan has a list of his or her favorites that he or she has not been able to find anywhere legally. For every title that was tied up in court or had to be painstakingly recreated, there were many others that were simply forgotten — except by the fans. We all appreciate the efforts of archivists, but that’s not the type of movies we’re talking about.


As countered by Stephen above, Mr. Kaufman’s argument that since the Greeks didn’t have copyright law, it’s not good now — is just plain ludicrous. That’s akin to saying that every automobile law in the U.S. is dumb, because the Greeks didn’t have automobile laws back then.

C’mon, Lloyd, really?

Furthermore, one of the reasons (and perhaps the main reason) the film industry as we know it today was birthed in Hollywood, was because Edison wouldn’t allow the European immigrants in the Eastern U.S. to participate in the nascent industry developing there. The prejudice of the “Wasp”/Eastern U.S. Establishment didn’t want outsiders participating. So the immigrants migrated to California and began a film industry here. Mr. Kaufman, of all people, should know something about this.

Now, Mr. Kaufman has had (and I believe still) a successful production and distribution business outside of the “Hollywood System,” and for that, he absolutely must be commended. This is no small feat for anyone, or any business. He’s a good businessman, and understands how to thrive in this dog eat dog industry. So… he’s successful and probably set for life, so it may be easy for him to say, “Open the floodgates, let there be no more copyrights!”

But what about those TENS OF THOUSANDS of filmmakers in the trenches, many of whom are struggling from one film to the next to survive? Their 1st or 2nd film hasn’t “hit” or been picked up by a major, and they’re struggling for next month’s rent? As soon as their film is released, even if by a small distributor or by themselves, and then pirated or made available on BitTorrent, they now lose the capacity to earn much needed dollars to survive. I’m sorry, Mr. Kaufman, but is it really fair to take the viewpoint that you’re inside the “Gate” and the Barbarians can fend for themselves?

It is estimated that $6 Billion is lost to piracy by the film industry. Granted, the lion’s share of this is from the Studios. But what about the 30% or 20% that is from the thousands of independent Producers and Directors? Studios can absorb big losses from piracy (although not forever, I’m sure), but if an independent filmmaker loses even $75,000 from piracy, that hurts him more than the Studios are hurt. (And I personally know filmmakers who have lost 5 or 6 figures from moderately successful indie films due to piracy.)

I think it is shortsighted — or certainly myopic — to make a sweeping argument against Copyright Law, when the antithesis of legal protection would result in a “Wild West” mentality with independent Producers and Directors being slaughtered. Because the simple truth is this: If a Filmmaker doesn’t “win the lottery” of a major deal on their first movie, and they don’t make back their budget (at a minimum) through all distribution efforts, it becomes a very high probability that they will never make another movie again.

Some may say, “Well, that’s Darwin’s survival of the fittest at work, tough beans.” But that’s not the civilization we have developed in the West. If we get rid of Copyright Law, what’s next Mr. Kaufman? Shall we just get rid of every law that protects people and their ability to survive, that didn’t exist in Ancient Greece?

Jerome Courshon
“THE SECRETS TO DISTRIBUTION: Get Your Movie Distributed Now”


Manufacture-on-demand is a wonderful thing, Dennis, I agree. But for aging movie fans who wanted to see some of the more obscure titles from the 30s and 40s (we’re not talking about GWTW or Citizen Kane here), the release of these films is at least 20 years too late! Copyright laws are necessary, of course, but they should protect people who are actively trying to market the products they created. They should not be used by companies who had nothing to do with the creation of the works sitting on them until they think they can make a buck, if ever. (And until all the people originally associated with a particular film are dead, by the way.) That’s just predatory capitalism run amuck. Artists should be properly rewarded for their work, absolutely. But media conglomerates are not “artists.”

Dennis Doros

I couldn’t disagree more with all of this. First, much of this history lacks any perspective. The vast illegal duplication of novels written by popular authors such as Charles Dickens in the 19th century quickly pointed out the shortcomings of the original copyright laws — and that piracy is nothing new. Or the fact that the music industry was the primary leader in extending the copyright laws and not Disney. (Do you think he made more money on Chastity — the movie, not the daughter — or It Ain’t Me Babe?) But it’s easier to attack Mickey Mouse than Mick Jagger. And for the record, I have no knowledge that either one participated in the changing of the copyright laws but I strongly suspect Goofy of sexting…

The length of term may be debated and it’s a worthwhile endeavor but the costs of a novel back in 1787 cannot compare to the costs of even a small film or the costs of restoring one. Milestone distributes classic films both in the public domain and in copyright and it is far easier to spend money on the proper presentation of a protected title then one that will appear in department DVD bargain bins six months later for 99 cents. (Though, illegal internet piracy is actually making any of this more and more difficult anyway.) And sure, everybody focuses on the “evils” of the studios (though several of them were actually legal participants in Edison’s Motion Picture Trust so Lloyd’s got the wrong as well) but how about the indie directors and producers that IndieWire is supposed to be the champions of? Many of the directors and producers we meet have NEVER received royalties from their films and some date as far back as the 1950s! (Gee, first-time directors being taken advantage of by distributors? Unheard of!) Current copyright laws have given them the chance to see real income for the first time in their lives.

And as a member of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, I see on a daily basis the huge amount of work and monies invested by the studios to restore films that “real” corporations would never consider a wise investment on their dollar. And it’s rather shocking to see people damn the studios for their Manufacture-on-Demand services and Turner Classic Movies for controlling copyrights — it’s actually proof that these films are no longer gathering dust and there is a real effort by the studios, archivists, labs, scholars and individuals to discover, restore and showcase long “lost” films. This article and the other comments are especially ironic since TCM just today scheduled the legally-unavailable-since-the-1940s film The Constant Nymph (with Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine and Alexis Smith) for September 28th at 8pm. It’s a wonderful film and WB/TCM spent more time on re-acquiring the author rights for the film than most people would consider healthy.

Until our government and its people properly reward artists for their efforts and invest in public exhibition, there is little chance that public access will create more or better art. It’s important to realize also for all this talk about what’s wrong with American copyright, it’s actually one of the least restrictive in the world. Most countries who signed the Berne Convention Treaty have a policy that films are owned until proven otherwise. There is really few recognized public domain titles (outside of American produced titles now in the PD!) or even the concept of fair use.

I’m not here to defend copyright — copyright laws are constantly changed and adapted to the times and they’ll change again — but the proper respect for the double-edge sword called copyright is required.


What were they preserving them for? Scores are still unreleased, most rarely if ever shown on TV, VHS copies selling at outrageous collectible prices as long as they’re never opened and viewed. Why were thousands of them never released on DVD until most of the people who originally saw them in the 1940s in the theaters reached their 80s and 90s? I’ll tell you why: Profits. They didn’t think they could make any money on them until they noticed that collectors were listing their collections on Web sites. Yes, there were some who put inferior DVD-R copies on eBay for ridiculous prices, claiming they were “rare.” Most of those people were never stopped, or people were warned away from them by others. Those weren’t the people they went after, believe me. Crooks? You’re looking in the wrong direction. We all love TCM, but showing a movie maybe once a year, if at all, isn’t being true to the idea of copyright protection. Use it or lose it. If after 40 years you’re not selling a product, you shouldn’t be able to claim it still belongs to you, whether it’s a movie or a book or a kitchen gadget. I agree with Kaufman: 14 years is plenty. (Like him, I am not advising piracy. Please do not make and sell copies of movies you don’t own.)


The Greeks didn’t consider copyright since they didn’t have a printing press yet… Once mass copying became available, the broad point of copyright was to prevent someone else from profiting from a creator’s work without compensating the artist (e.g. a publisher making money by selling books without compensating the author). The flowering of literature was entirely enabled by allowing authors to profit from their art.

That said, vibrant public sphere is equally necessary to art – hence the time limit.

Yes, copyright can and has been abused, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t necessary.


Excuse me? Warner Bros made nearly it’s entire library of films available on both TCM and a bunch of crooks taped them off air and made a ton of money selling them. Warner’s has done more to preserve and make available it’s library than all other studios combined and I have zero sympathy for the pirates who just chain prints or make off air copy and make thousands of dollars selling them on the net. Not like the posted them up for free, they were making money. I wish every studio took as much care to preserve at protect their films as WB.

Guess Who

Genius! I agree! Down with the Mouse!


Couldn’t agree more. WB and the other big players let thousands of great and near-great films from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s lay around gathering dust for decades, refusing to release them on DVD, but as soon as collectors began making copies of what they assumed were abandoned films available to people at reasonable prices through the Internet, they created the Warner Archive Collection so they could do it themselves, and immediately sued (bypassing the cease and desist letter of warning, which would have done the trick) a number of these suppliers, demanding cash and threatening dire consequences. All anybody wanted was for these films to be available for home viewing (other than on TCM). And of course the manufactured-on-demand copies they are selling contain code to prevent them from being played on a computer or any other device which might be able to copy them! Can you hear Jefferson spinning in his grave?

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