When Good Ideas Go Bad/Pirates of the Cinema - Introduction

February 12, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

Based on reports that I have heard, today is the day when the latest computer virus will expire (or maybe not). This will be a great relief to my e-mail "in" box, which has been overflowing for the better part of two weeks. (If you sent an e-mail to me earlier than February 6 and I haven't responded by now, it probably means that it was inadvertantly dumped as part of one of my semi-daily virus purges.) Strangely enough, however, infected e-mails aren't the biggest problem I'm currently facing (besides, my anti-virus software takes care of them anyway). The most irritating clutter results from all the "return mail" messages informing me that I have sent someone an infected e-mail.

Once upon a time, this must have sounded like a good idea: automatic virus blocking software, after intercepting and deleting an infected e-mail, sends a helpful note back to the source warning of an infection. Unforunately, starting last year, viruses got smarter. Now, they forge the return address, which means that the bounce-back "you've got a virus" message goes to an account that didn't send anything. And, since [email protected] is on a lot of people's e-mail lists, it ends up being an unfortunately popular forged address. (I have gotten infected messages supposedly from myself. If I had an automatic warning system, I would have sent myself several messages warning myself that I'm infected. Viral recursion!)

If I get 500 virus related e-mails in a day, at least half are these kinds of warnings. This is a problem - bandwidth waste and an irritant. The time has come for those who have this kind of automatic response system to disable it. It's causing far more harm than good; the percentage of infected e-mails that still use the correct return address is pathetically low. All of the new, sexy viruses have gotten smarter. Now, it's time for the blocking software to follow suit.

Pirates of the Cinema - an Introduction

This is the first installment of a multi-part article about motion picture piracy. My intention with this series is not to do another "puff piece" about the evils of piracy, but to look a little deeper beneath the surface and offer a few honest but politically incorrect answers to common questions. When writing pieces on piracy, few people bother to get the opinion of the pirates. Instead, they rely on stock quotes from studio reps. However, considering the amount of graft and corruption that goes on across the big business spectrum, and accepting that the motion picture studios represent big business, why are we suddenly so willing to take what they have to say at face value? Do you trust Michael Eisener more than the pimply-faced 14-year old computer geek down the street?

For example, consider the commonly held belief that the studios are losing "billions of dollars" each year because of piracy. It's easy enough to make the calculations (provided lots of assumptions are included). A file sharing system like Kazaa offers access to roughly 500 million files at any given time. If two-tenths of one percent are full-length movies, and 10% of those are downloaded on any given day, that's 100,000 film files per day. The value of those files can be anywhere between $5 (a theater matinee) to $20 (a DVD purchase). Let's use a weighted average of $10 per file. So, the total value of downloaded movie files is $1 million per day, or about $400 million per year. And that's on Kazaa alone. Expand that to multiple file sharers, both public and private, and it's easy to see where the $2-3 billion number comes from. But there's a catch. The value of dowloaded files is not equivalent to lost revenue. And that's a difference (or should I say "big lie") I'll explore in Part One.

Another important consideration is to separate movie piracy from music piracy. A major reason why people steal songs is that the record industry has thus far been unable to provide a legitimate means to obtain music as conveniently as by downloading something from a file sharer. If it was possible to log on to a single site and buy any song for 50 cents, music piracy would take a big hit. (I am not saying this is a cure-all, but it would help.) There is no analogous solution for movies. Downloading entire motion pictures is cumbersome and time-consuming. It's far easier to go to amazon.com and order a DVD or to drive to a local multiplex. Cost is also a minor factor. If you have to pay $18 to get one song along with 14 other crappy tracks, that's robbery by the music industry. $9 for a theater admission or $20 for a DVD is reasonable, if not cheap. That's another subject for Part One.

Before I go any further, it's time for an obligatory disclaimer. I am firmly against movie piracy. No matter how its advocates attempt to pretty up its image, it is the unlawful theft of copyrighted material. As someone who has been plagiarized over 100 times (and those are only the incidents I know about), I'm keenly aware of what it means to have my intellectual property stolen. I have never watched a pirated movie, nor do I intend to (even when such a movie is currently not available in the United States). I do not own equipment that would allow me to break a DVD copy protection. And I don't pay for one movie, then sneak from theater to theater (not piracy, but still theft). The goal here is not to defend pirates, but to explore the world of piracy with an unblinking eye.