A Familiar Refrain

November 12, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Piracy is one of those topics I return to frequently. Although I believe it is a serious problem on some levels, I also believe the MPAA and its cronies have turned this into a witch-hunt, seeking to punish fanboys and movie-lovers with the same zeal they would apply to hardcore criminals. It's never "right" to steal a motion picture, but let's temper the need for justice with common sense, intelligence, and understanding. When it comes to the MPAA and their anti-piracy crusade, the last three qualities are in short supply. (Note: this column does not refer to those who pirate movies as a means of making money and/or defrauding the public.)

Last week, several media outlets noted something I have been arguing for a while: the "loss estimates" provided by the studios associated with revenue "stolen" by pirates is grossly inflated. The formula is this: every pirated (illegally downloaded) theatrical release represents an $8 loss (or whatever the weighted ticket price is deemed to be) and every pirated (illegally downloaded or copied) DVD title represents a $20 loss (or whatever the list price of the DVD is). On the surface, this might sound reasonable, but let's look at things more deeply.

In my view, there are three primary reasons why an "oridinary" person might pirate a movie:
(1) He/she is a cheapskate and doesn't want to pay,
(2) He/she loves the movie and wants an "early" copy before one is legitimately available,
(3) He/she is curious about a movie, but not curious enough to pay money to see it.

I have no defense for those who are in category #1. If you want something that's readily available, you should be willing to pay for it. Movies aren't necessities like food and drink. Arguments for this kind of theft ring hollow. However, based on personal experience, I don't think there are many people in this category. I know a fair number of pirates, and they all fit into categories #2 and #3.

Category #2 applies primarily to those who can't wait for the DVD to get a copy of their latest favorite movie, so they download it. Most people in this category pay at least once to see the film theatrically (often more than once) and buy a legal copy on DVD as soon as it's available. They simply want something they can handle, something that allows them to claim the bragging rights of owning a copy before they should be able to do so. Some people in this category don't even watch the illegal copy of the movie. They download it and skim through it to make sure it's what they want, then they put it aside. That's the collector's mentality. Having is important, not using. Where's the loss of revenue here?

Category #3 is something we can all relate to. We see an ad for a movie that looks intriguing - not enough to pay money to see it, but maybe something to remember when it shows up on DVD or HBO. For some people, there's an alternative: download a copy and start watching. If it's bad, stop part-way through and delete the file. Nothing is lost. If it's good, the download was worth it. There's no loss of revenue here. Those who pirate these movies weren't going to pay for the ticket/DVD anyway. At worst, the distributor loses nothing. But consider a situation when someone watches a movie and really likes it. Now, they might tell their friends about it. If it's still in theaters, they might want to experience it on a big screen. If it's on DVD, they might want the full-blown DVD treatment with all the special effects. Word-of-mouth is positive and, in a case when there might be sequels, the audience for additional installments could be enlarged.

Movie studios love demonizing pirates because it turns the public's attention away from their own unscrupulous business practices. One doesn't have to defend piracy to understand it. And once one undestands it, one might be able to use it to a financial advantage. I repeat the same refrain I have previously echoed: the studio that figures out how to exploit piracy and the tendencies underlying it will find a goldmine. For now, however, all we're hearing about is prosecution. Or should that be persecution?