What Most People Don’t Know About Movie Piracy by COOP

Posted on July 24th, 2009
Posted on July 24th, 2009

Elementary school kids and soccer moms have illegally downloaded free music for nearly a decade, but with that problem coming under control thanks to iTunes, the focus has now shifted to movies. People buy bootleg DVDs on street corners from Hollywood to Singapore. Chances are someone in Antarctica is streaming a hot download of the new “Harry Potter” movie as we speak. Movie piracy has hit an all-time high as studios desperately try to develop new strategies and technologies to combat it. With the Motion Picture Association of America claiming a 2.3 billion dollar loss from piracy in 2005 alone, perhaps it’s time for the casual movie buccaneer to become informed about his/her impact on this popular industry.

Many of those who engage in movie piracy consider it a victimless crime; that they are only denying royalties to the Hollywood bigwigs (the stars, the big directors, the producers, the moguls, etc…). What pirates fail to realize is those high-paid VIPs comprise only a small fraction of the Hollywood work force. Most movie industry jobs pay modestly and those employees rely on the success of the industry to put food on the table. Losses from piracy cause a trickle-down effect resulting in slashed salaries, understaffing and layoffs. In essence, piracy hurts the “little guy” the most.

Monetary losses from piracy also affect the industry in other ways, like slashed production budgets which can lead to inferior product and fewer films being made. Studios also waste time and money pursuing legal prosecution against pirates and developing ways to prevent the practice.

I got in touch with an anonymous industry insider who, due to the nature of her job, spends a great deal of time battling movie piracy. She indicated that while the movie industry has fared better than most during these trying economic times, movie piracy is still the number one legal concern of the company she works for. She claims that lost revenue from piracy “makes it difficult to pay residuals and compensate the artists.”

“(Piracy) in the U.S. isn’t the only problem; it’s mostly other countries where people videotape in the theaters, making it difficult to enforce,” says the insider. She also suggests the industry is hesitant to develop systems that will allow the legal downloads of films from the internet for fear it will hurt their bottom line. She speculates the movie industry will eventually have to embrace free legal downloading and take the financial hit by making money primarily through paid advertising… Surely a hard pill to swallow for a business that has thrived for over 100 years without the technology.

One way studios plan to combat piracy in the theaters is by creating more 3-D films. This would curtail those who bring video cameras into theaters because the image without the special glasses would appear blurred in the pirated copy. However, with personal camcorders becoming more advanced every year, it is doubtful 3-D will eliminate the practice for long. Also in development is a technology called “Blindspot” which automatically detects the presence of a camera and blinds it with an invisible light pulse, but such technology has yet to deploy. Other creative techniques such as “audio watermarking” and tagging content with secret tracking codes have lead to some success in busting industry insiders and rogue theater employees who leak pirated material. Embargos on sneak preview screenings in foreign countries, especially Canada (responsible for the majority of camcorder/theater infractions), have resulted in the suppressing of bootleg DVD markets. Rumor has it that the Motion Picture Association of America has employed top internet pirates to aid them in counter-pirating operations. If this is true, then the MPAA is essentially encouraging these “pirate kings” to narc on their competitors for cash.

Of course, anti-piracy efforts can go too far. Music industry legal teams have sued a handful of internet file-sharing individuals for millions. Since they can’t prosecute all pirates, they have selected a few easily traceable ones in order to make examples out of them. The lawyers of these defendants claim that the plaintiffs often don’t have the data evidence to back up their accusations, making the lawsuit a mere “shock and awe” harassment tactic.

Another anonymous insider who works for a company that publishes DVD special features (including menus and subtitles) says the questions I emailed to him stirred up an all-afternoon debate within his office about the ethics of piracy. He sees a lot of gray area when it comes to internet file sharing: “If you don’t see anything wrong with piracy or copyright infringement, then this could be taken to the extreme of wanting everything for free, thus no profit is to be made,… On the other hand, if you are for enforcement of infringement laws, this could also be taken to the extreme by filing lawsuits against individuals who share files (which we currently see in the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America]), and even reaching the point in which you can’t make a backup of something you own!”

He goes on to say that hackers have become a nuisance, breaking through firewalls and stealing content. While he does support prosecuting the source of piracy (when they can find it), he doesn’t support the prosecution of individual file sharers. He believes spending energy on creating “unbreakable” systems makes more sense than prosecuting those who exploit “breakable” systems, but that’s not the direction anti-piracy enforcement is heading.

While this issue has many industry insiders sweating bullets, many see it as an evolving problem that will either work out in the end or sink the movie business entirely. While this information I’ve presented may not deter movie pirates, I hope it at least gives them food for thought as they sneak that camera into the theater or download “Terminator: Salvation” from a less than reputable website. A warning to those who watch downloaded material: You’re leaving yourself open to one of the most common sources of viruses, trojans and malware on the web when you download torrents or stream illegal video. Are lone gunmen responsible for these viruses or is it a secret plot by Hollywood to strike back at pirates? We may never know, but it sure would make a good movie.


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