Pirates of the Cinema - Battle Plans

February 20, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

"We're losing money!" That's the battle cry of the studios, recognizing (although perhaps not understanding) that movie piracy is somehow impacting the bottom line. So how do they react? A clumsy frontal assault that would be laughable if it wasn't so expensive. "Education," consisting of absurd ads with various movie technicians bemoaning potential unemployment because of cutthroat geeks with broadband internet access, is prong one. (I'm sure they'll get the sympathy of everyone whacked by the bursting of the tech bubble.) Prong two is a legal assault on anyone caught red-handed downloading a movie. Prong three is the stooges with hand held metal detectors "wanding" everyone who enters a pre-release screening - never mind that the detectors are used improperly. If I was so inclined, I could sneak in a camera without any conern of being caught. That's how manifestly ineffective this "security" is. It's for show only.

I don't claim to have all the answers, but even I can come up with a few better ideas. No, I don't know how to stop overseas piracy. Since theft in Asia is usually related to the illegal copying of DVDs, it's tough to police, especially if the local law enforcement agencies don't cooperate. However, considering that nearly every studio is an appendage to a huge multinational corporation, one would assume that, if this form of piracy became an issue, some arm-twisting could be done.

So let's concentrate on amateur piracy. Can it be stopped altogether? Absolutely not. Not in a society that values free speech and freedom of expression. Maybe not even in a totalitarian society. Underground movements will always abound. But there are ways to control and limit the damage (if that's what the studios want to call it). First, spend the money to have trained security monitors discreetly patrolling multiplex auditoriums. There doesn't have to be one monitor per auditorium. A roving person will be enough to discourage almost everyone, since photographers have to shut off the camera five or six times (for several minutes) every time the monitor meanders into the theater. Second, limit the number of screeners that are distributed, and ensure that every one is electronically encoded with a traceable signature. Third, go after the people who upload the movies, not those who download them. The former is a preventive measure, while the latter is merely punitive. Finally, and most imporantly, choke off illegal copies at the likely source - within the studios. Tighten control and institute employee searches.

But why not take things a step further? Why not get really creative? Why not find inventive ways to make piracy work for the studio? It can happen - consider the example I offered in Part One about Cabin Fever. It seems to me that the trick is to offer potential downloaders something that leaves them wanting more. Take control of putting things on-line. Flood the peer-to-peer networks with inferior copies of a movie that will give potential viewers a taste of the product, but not a full meal. Maybe put up everything except the last 10 minutes. And stop generating ill will by going after individuals who are just downloading for fun. The recording industry has already created a "them vs. me" attitude that paints all of the labels as greedy, power-hungry, corrupt entities. The motion picture industry is headed in the same direction. It's in the studios' best interests to keep on good terms with their potential customer base, otherwise a percentage will resort to piracy as a "screw you" measure.

If history has taught any lesson, it's that the more complex the methods are to stop pirates, the more inventive the pirates will become. Open warfare would result in huge losses on both sides and countless stalemates. It may eventually become more difficult to download movies, but, for those who enjoy the game, a success will be all the more rewarding. Meanwhile, Asian and DVD piracy will continue to slowly drain money like blood while the spotlight will remain squarely on the more sexy topic of on-line theft, even though (as has been amply demonstrated) the actual lost revenue is minimal.

So what is the point of this lengthy, multi-part discussion of piracy? Not really to find solutions, but to look at the situation from a more comprehensive perspective than is usually found, without demonizing pirates (as occurs in most corporate-funded write-ups) or lionizing them (as occurs in underground publications). If there are lessons to be learned, they are these: (1) piracy is theft, no matter what excuses are offered; (2) the studios have gone to great lengths to overstate the dangers posed by on-line pirates; (3) theft of product often does not equate to loss of revenue; (4) piracy can, in rare circumstances, be a positive marketing tool; (5) a more imaginative and comprehensive approach by the studios might yield beneficial results; and (6) piracy cannot be stopped.

A few readers have raised some interesting points about piracy, particularly as it exists in Asia. I'll address those concerns, and talk a little about the ethics of piracy, in an upcoming postscript.