Return of the Pirates

May 19, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Please note that the following applies only to those who download movies and TV shows from the Net for fun, not profit. It doesn't apply to those who make money from the copyright infringement of others. Those people should be pursued and punished to the fullest extent of the law.

Last year, I wrote a multi-part series (February 12, 15, 16, 20, and 29 of 2004) about the ins and outs of piracy. I expressed the opinion that the movie industry was exaggerating their financial losses and that some forms of "piracy" might not be as bad as they were making them out to be. Now, piracy is back in the news with two stories. In the first, last week, the MPAA decided to go after BitTorrent sites that provide torrents used for downloading TV shows. In the second, it has been revealed that there is strong anecdotal evidence that pirated downloads resulted in ratings upswings for two TV series with sizeable fan bases: "Battlestar Galactica" and "Dr. Who."

My belief, based on personal experience with those who loosely identify themselves as habitual pirates, is that the motion picture industry does not lose a single cent as a result of casual downloaders. When someone dowloads a film, they do it for one of two reasons: affection or curiosity. In the former case, they have almost certainly already seen the movie in a theater and likely plan to buy it on DVD. They are downloading a copy to have something as a stopgap in their personal collection. (They may not even watch it - possessing it may be enough. Understand the mind of the fan or collector.) In the latter case, the movie isn't something they intended to see in the first place, so there's no lost revenue. If the choice is between paying for it and seeing it or not paying for it and not seeing it, they will skip it. Yet if, after downloading a coy, they end up liking it, there's a chance that they will want to see it in a big-screen venue or buy a better quality copy on DVD. (This isn't idle speculation. I know of cases when it has happened.) It's a rare instance when somone downloads a movie instead of seeing it in a theater or buying it on DVD - the lost revenue circumstance that obsesses the MPAA. There's simply not much money being lost here, and quite possibly some being gained.

The situation with TV show "piracy" is more odd. The average TV show downloader goes on-line to grab an episode that he/she missed (for whatever reason). It's like having a remote DVR. If the power goes out during the season finale of "24" next week, I will take comfort that I don't have to wait until October for the DVD. To me, that's a good thing. And it should be a good thing for the producers and broadcasters. If someone misses a few episodes of "24" (or any serialized show), that's normally a cue to stop watching. But if they can download the episodes they missed and get brought up to speed, there's a chance they'll start watching again. Or what if a downloader "discovers" a show after casually downloading a few episodes, then ends up tuning in to watch it. (Fox sort-of recognized the potential of this approach when they released Season 1 of "24" on DVD shortly before begining Season 2 on TV. People bought the low-priced DVD set, got hoooked, and started watching the show on television.)

There's also ample evidence that good word-of-mouth amplified by downloading led to big ratings for "Battlestar Galactica," which showed three months earlier in the U.K. than it did in the U.S. (so BitTorrent copies of the U.K. episodes were available to North American downloaders long before they aired on the SciFi Channel). Some industry experts (none associated with the MPAA) believe that piracy was in part responsible for the high U.S. ratings. Downloaders watched the episodes and raved about them to friends and family, and the number of viewers increased. Similarly, a preview of the new "Dr. Who" series appeared on-line several weeks before its TV debut, and this helped to fuel the hype machine. The premiere, when it aired on BBC1 in late March, was a huge success. For a show - any show - with a brand name, awareness is key. And that's something that the "buzz" generated by those who had seen the downloaded episodes contributed.

Being a writer, I am sensitive to copyright issues, but the reality seems to be that there is more money to be made by working with the downloaders than attacking them. This isn't the first time the MPAA has shown a shocking short-sightedness. They went after the VCR when it was first introduced, claiming that the concept of movies on videotape would kill the motion picture industry. Surprise, surprise! They didn't get it then, and they don't get it now.

Fighting illegal downloading is like fighting bootlegging during Prohibition. The MPAA may be able to win some battles, but they'll lose the war. For every BitTorrent site they shut down, two more will open, and it won't take long for the URLs to circulate. And keep this maxim in mind: if it's underground and has an illicit flavor, it's fun. On-liners are far more flexible and resilient than the MPAA gives them credit for. The only way to win is for the MPAA to stop fighting and find a way for the situation to work for them. Models have been proposed - everything from turning a blind eye to developing low-cost services that offer similar (but legal) content. Creativity, not reactionary thinking, is what's needed, and it seems to be in short supply.