Fox Isn't the Only 20th Century Studio

June 23, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

I read an article recently that discussed the propensity for younger members of society to flout certain copyright laws. According to the article, about 50% of the content on the "average" young person's iPod is illegally obtained. Does this mean we're raising a generation of perpetual law-breakers or is it time to rethink laws and regulations that might have made sense 50 years ago but have long since become obsolescent by way of technology?

If it's possible, the movie industry is even more behind the times than the music industry. The MPAA and its member studios are fond of crying "foul!" and assigning blame. Far be it from them to take responsibility for a portion of the situation and seek an innovative way to turn the current climate to their advantage. Back in the early '80s, the studios were convinced that the advent of home video would lead to the end of the movie industry. Instead, it has re-invigorated cinema as a business and provided a much-needed second revenue stream. Had the studios embraced home video rather than fighting it at the beginning, the windfall would have occurred earlier.

The idea that someone who downloads a camcorder-made copy of a theatrical movie is "stealing" it is ludicrous. Yes, it's technically illegal, but let's use some common sense. That's almost as silly as saying I was guilty of theft when I dragged my audio tape recorder into a movie theater and recorded Star Trek II on cassette. I did not "steal" from Paramount to siphon away their revenue but because I loved the movie. I listened to those tapes while sitting in the back seat on long car trips and sometimes while falling asleep at night. My possession of those two 60-minute el-cheapo cassettes (which I distributed for free to two friends) did not reduce the number of times I saw the film. Would I have been upset had someone attempted to prosecute me for this copyright violation? Of course.

There is, of course, a difference between those who pirate movies to sell them at cut-rate prices versus those who download a copy onto their hard drive for personal use. The difference is profit. I agree that it's not only illegal but immoral for someone to make money from someone else's hard work without providing fair remuneration. But I disagree that someone who is downloading a movie because they're curious about it or because they love it and want a copy before it's available on DVD should be subject to punitive action. It's about time the studios recognize this as well.

Contrary to commonly held belief, most illegal copies of movies available during a popular film's theatrical run are camcorder copies. This is especially true of blockbusters. There are exceptions, but almost all of those are the result of lax studio security. When a workprint is leaked onto the Internet, it's almost always an "insider" job of one sort or another. And, at the end of the year, with so many screener DVD copies floating around, it's almost impossible to police them all. But that's Juno, not Transformers.

For someone to argue that downloading and watching a camcorder version of a film is akin to stealing the price of ticket indicates the person making that charge has never watched a camcorder-made video. Even the best are almost unwatchable and sitting through such a copy all but mandates that the viewer has already seen the movie in a theater. In many cases, camcorder copies are not meant to infringe on the studio's copyright. They are meant to give a 13-year old boy the chance to re-live his favorite scene from Iron Man when his mom is too busy to drive him to the theater to see it for the fifteenth time. It's not a substitute; it's an enhancement. (Again, I'm referring to free downloads, not DVDs bought in Times Square. Those selling the latter should be prosecuted.)

This is where studios have an entry point. If substandard copies of entire movies were made available either for free or as part of a package with a minimal subscription fee, this arm of piracy would go away. The video and audio would have to be poor (but better - or at least steadier - than camcorder quality). If it was too good, there would be freeloaders who would watch the copy instead of seeing the movie or renting/buying the DVD. Think "YouTube" quality. Make it legal for fans to get crummy copies of their favorite movies as a way to hold them over until the DVD release. This is really nothing than a new way of marketing. And it would make a dent in illegal copies.

Would it impact revenue? Undoubtedly. There are some people who would use the downloads as "review substitutes." Instead of going blindly to see a movie, why not download it and watch part of it to see if it's worth the price of admission? (If it stinks, you can still watch the rest, after a fashion, on your computer.) Studios that see only the lost $ are clinging to the past. And you can't move into the future that way. At some point, they'll be left behind, shaking their heads and wondering where it all went wrong. The genie is out of the bottle. Downloading, both legal and illegal, is a way of life and it has become ingrained into the fabric of a generation's way of looking at things. Those who find a creative way to become part of this new wave will make money. Those who fight it and threaten lawsuits will find their revenue streams drying up.

One final word, and this has to do with the way studios calculate those enormous sums of money they claim are lost as a result of piracy. Here's how they play the game. They come up with an exaggerated number of times a movie file is downloaded. (How they get these numbers are anyone's guess but they don't seem to resemble reality…) They then assume that every download represents a lost ticket sale plus a lost DVD sale. So they apply a $35 cost to every download (assuming $10 for the ticket and $25 for the DVD), and do the multiplication. That's where the numbers come from. There's no consideration that many of those downloads are not "lost sales" but either sales that never would have been made or people downloading a stopgap to get through the downtime from the theatrical run to the DVD availability. Nor are the possible positive implications considered - like someone who sees a movie in a theater or buys the DVD because he's intrigued or impressed by what he sees. It is, plain and simple, fear-mongering. And it belongs in the 20th century, not the 21st.