Film Piracy

I read recently, courtesy of the BBC, yet another story of the film industry trying desperately to curb piracy. I remember the issue of using night vision in cinemas coming up before as a method to stop people taping the movie and thought it bizarre, if rather harmless. Let's face it, it's completely impractical. For a day or two, a week tops, and in limited screens maybe, but cinemas aren't going to fork over some of their profits to buy or employ technology and manpower to stand about on the off chance someone is trying to record a movie. Nor can I see anyone taking to bag searches and metal detectors being used, talk about spoiling the mood.

The most practical method is to try and stem the cause of the piracy. This sounds far easier than it will ever be. For starters, there are a number of reasons for the piracy, some personal (someone wants their own copy before anyone else), many financial. Looking at the markets that drive this industry (and it is an industry), the reasons come down to cost or time. That is to say that a pirate tape or DVD is cheaper than the original, cheaper than a cinema ticket, or that people just like to get what they see as a bargain. Alternatively, they buy pirate videos because they're available long before the legitimate commercial product.

Pirated videos are always going to cost far less than their legal counterparts, simply because the pirates have no overheads and practically no production or distribution costs. I don't think the film industry is ever going to be able to compete with the pirates on cost, simply because, no matter how low they go, the pirates can always undercut them and still make money. This could happily be beaten because the legitimate product is of higher quality, but with digital copies, more technologically astute pirates and faster cut-price internet services, this is falling away. In fact, some time ago, I saw pirate copies that were as good, if not better quality, than their mainstream equivalents. And this was before DVDs. These videos were direct copies of Laserdiscs (remember those?) done in the Far East at the time of manufacture. The shaky copies done in cinemas (i.e. the ones the film industry seems to be targeting), with poor sound and people in the way, still suffer from this, but the copies done in the Far East, where the movies go to get pressed into thousands of retail DVDs, don't. So cost can be beaten only by quality, or offering something that the pirates can't offer, namely a legitimate version of the film.

The other issue is one of time, and is one that a) I think is huge and b) is solvable. There are a number of reasons why movies are not released in all countries (territories) at the same time. For one, promotion. The actors can't be everywhere at the same time, and without them plugging it or appearing at the premiere, you get less press coverage and therefore less advertising (that's all it is after all). Another reason is that many distribution companies and cinema chains in territories outside the US watch what a movie does in it's domestic (i.e. the US) box office before deciding whether to spend the expense to distribute or book it for their screens in their territory. Hence why many US releases go straight to video in the UK. This regularly happens to US sports movies (see The Replacements starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman as an example) because they rarely do well in other countries, especially where those sports aren't played (or certainly aren't big).

The problem is that we now live in a global society. Most movie fans are well aware of what comes out in the US because such a fuss is made of it, even by our own press. And yet, despite all the hype, we're forced to wait an average of six months before we can see it. In many instances this can mean the region 1 (i.e. US) DVD is available before it's released theatrically in other territories. Even if this doesn't happen, the region 1 DVD is, most of the time, available well before any other region.

The demand for multi-region DVD players has shown that people don't like to wait, they don't like to be told that some countries can have this now, but you guys are going to have to wait – not four weeks, not two months, but half-a-year. Is the industry not getting the message, or are they just ignoring everyone? WE DON'T WANT TO WAIT! Give it to us NOW!

Recently, Matrix Revolutions premiered around the world at same time giving the film pirates no time to make copies and get them out to the audience before. Now, that must have been a logistical nightmare, but it worked to combat piracy. There were no stories like those which followed the launch of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

There has long been talk of distributors looking into satellite distribution to cinemas to avoid the costs of creating expensive film projection reels and also to eliminate the risks of people intercepting and stealing copies before release. This is something that would also make synchronised launches far easier. This, along with releasing DVDs at the same time in all of the territories would significantly reduce, though never totally eliminate, film piracy.

A thought for the future might be having pay-per-view for new releases beamed into your home via your satellite or cable network, or a broadband multimedia provider. You simply hit watch when it's been released and then get billed at the end of the month, similar to how it works in hotels. The problem is obviously stopping people from recording it and then either re-watching or passing it on. Alternatively, some enterprising soul could re-transmit it to an infinite number of people. As such this may never be a real alternative for immediate distribution, especially when added to the dislike cinemas would take, and the obvious attractions and benefits of a proper cinema over home cinema. It could become feasible for the rental and retail markets though, in a similar way to music downloads or movie channels (watch out for the MGM Home Cinema Network™ coming soon).

I would advise the film industry to focus on the area that most threatens them: the Far East. It is estimated that 6.1 million of the seven million illegal copies floating around each year come from the Far East. They have top quality copies passed to them for manufacture, with thousands (probably nearer hundreds of thousands) of copies produced, who's going to miss one? All it takes is one to be sold to the right people (and you know that the pirates have contacts inside the production plants, and are probably paying far better than the plants do) and you have a high quality, digital (so no degradation) version floating about meaning legitimate copies lose their edge on both quality and time. That's where the industry should focus its efforts.

Eliminating the time delays for movie releases in different territories and the DVD region system and there will be an immediate reduction in piracy. Technology won't solve the industry's problems. Making it harder for legitimate customers to use and watch DVDs is only going to alienate those people and hurt sales, and no matter how good the system, someone will break it faster than anyone can invent a new one. So why is it about time the film industry opened it's eyes and took note of what your customers actually want?

Update: 10th April 2004
This article, headline under Illegal film downloads 'triple' suggests that 1.67m people in the UK downloaded film and TV content in 2003, three times that of the year before. They estimate this cost the UK video industry £45m in lost DVD sales.

The article states that the low quality of the pirate DVDs is lessening the impact on the industry, as I suggested and that download times were prohibitive (those these are dropping).

The British Video Association did say that continued low costs would help, but despite the piracy, DVD sales grew 63% and now help 70% of the video market and that sales rose from £2.05bn to £2.42bn in 2003.

I also note that there is no mention of the other big releases: the Matrix movies, Return of the King to name but two, which were released globally at very similar times.

Another article also published today states the case, as I did, that digital locks and crackdowns hurt only one group, consumers. Those with technical skills, and the pirates especially, are not affected by copyright control as they can bypass them. It's the average Joe who gets it in the neck. Although this article speaks specifically about music, it is equally applicable to movies.

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