Movie piracy issues are escalating. According to the MPAA, “downloading movies without the authorization of copyright holders is a growing international phenomenon, and it has serious consequences.” Legal issues surrounding movie piracy is a media hot topic with the premature leak of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 20th Century Fox‘s new link in the X-Men chain. Within the following paragraphs I’ll outline the impacts of this pirated pre-release by looking from the consumer and 20th Century Fox’s point of view, and then provide an argument against movie piracy while offering an alternative to wet the appetites for those who consume pirated content.
The product of an audience’s love for a mysterious, dangerous and volatile character, Wolverine is aimed to be a successful spin-off prequel and curious journey down a storyline sure to make fans hesitant by its dedication to the comic book. The leak, an April Fool’s joke in poor taste, was released April 1st and subsequently sent the entertainment world in a buzz. Not only was the film leaked early, but it was an unfinished version, leaving room for much skepticism regarding the quality of the finished product. Now reaching over a million downloads, New York Times journalist Jenna Wortham states, “Studio executives are concerned that the crude copy, which supposedly lacks computer-generated graphics and other final touches, could sour potential moviegoers and deliver a crushing blow to the opening weekend’s box office take.” In response to this leak, 20th Century Fox filed a federal investigation.
Pirating movies is a way for consumers to “stick it to the man,” a rebellion that often earns them credit among the bit torrent community, but carries a big price tag if caught. David Kravets, a Wired journalist writes, “The defendant faces up to five years in prison under a closely guarded copyright law making it a criminal offense to upload pre-release material. That’s because uploading pre-release material – movies or music – is considered the most egregious form of piracy warranting FBI involvement.”
Lines are easily blurred though. For instance, if you buy a DVD then rip it to your computer’s hard drive, are you committing piracy? In the recent case of RealDVD you are. Film companies found RealDVD’s software too tempting for consumers after realizing the ease to rip a hardcopy DVD into a digital file accessible for distribution over the internet. Stated in a post on Engadget back in October, RealDVD was slapped with “a temporary restraining order blocking sales of the software,” which is valid until the court decides if it “violates the DMCA.” Presently this case is just now returning to court. According to the studios, RealDVD cannot hold the Fair Use act on their side because they’re not using the copy for “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.” But should all customers be treated like a potential criminal just because a few can’t follow the rules? According to the MPAA “piracy is the unauthorized taking, copying or use of copyright materials without permission.” You could also argue against RealDVD and say they are actually commercially profiting from copying because that is the nature of their software.
The temptation to download an illegal copy of a movie can be alluring because often consumers feel protected and anonymous inside the privacy of their home. Not all people engaged in movie piracy are going to redistribute though. Consumers might feel frustrated because they keep paying for the same product and feel a need for better policies around media ownership. The typical movie-goer might pay to see it on the big screen and then rent a copy later and finally decide they want to own it. This might fuel the urge to travel outside the law and provide the right amount of justification to illegally download.
Piracy is bad, but how bad is it really affecting the movie industry? TechDirt states in a post, “There is very little evidence that movie ‘piracy’ cannibalizes the attendance. That’s why the most ‘pirated’ films are also the biggest box office hits.” In essence, the fan base is already out there, ripe with anticipation to see any bit of the film. The same cannot be said of a poor film. According to a TorrentFreak survey “40 percent of participants who had sneaked a peek at the Hollywood release were still planning to see the film in theaters.” In addition, the New York Times article actually states some avid pirates choosing to not watch the leak; this creates more buzz for opening day.
There is a big difference between an average consumer downloading a pirated copy of a movie, and an inside agent sneaking a copy of a major motion picture from the studio. In the case of Wolverine there was malice and intent to possibly harm 20th Century Fox and the X-Men franchise. Within their statement, 20th Century Fox says “we are encouraged by the support of fansites condemning piracy and this illegal posting and pointing out that such theft undermines the enormous efforts of the filmmakers and actors, and above all, hurts the fans of the film.” Prior to that they declared they’d push for a conviction and expect a “significant criminal sentence.”
Some argue 20th Century Fox could have dealt with this situation differently. They could have “responded in a way that built anticipation to get people to actually go see the movie.” During conditions like these, there is something valuable to take away if you seize the moment. Revisiting their business plan to find a way to meld leaked content and eager anticipation together might have been realized as a “register for extra content” promotion providing access to unreleased content to a paying fanbase. This would be in conjunction with the filmmakers and their marketing department. Followers of series like Batman or Spiderman might be willing to pay if it meant seeing unedited snippets sans finished details. In this environment the movie studio can get feedback on the film. TechDirt proposes this as well and notes that piracy should be visited again to see how it can be integrated into the film industry’s business model. Instead of hunting down the pirates, use those extra resources to focus “on giving people a real reason to go see the film in theaters.”
Some Pirates Won’t Watch Illegal ‘Wolverine’ http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/06/some-pirates-wont-watch-illegal-wolverine/?scp=1&sq=wolverine&st=cse, accessed 4/28/09
In an Alternate Universe, How 20th Century Fox Could Have Responded to Wolverine Leak http://techdirt.com/articles/20090402/0316244351.shtml, accessed 4/28/09
http://www.MPAA.org, accessed 4/28/09
RealDVD Empowers Consumers —NOT http://blog.copyrightalliance.org/2008/10/realdvd-empowers-comsumers-not/, accessed 4/28/09
RealDVD ripping software heads to court, fair use advocates on pins and needles http://www.engadget.com/tag/RealDvd/, accessed 4/29/09
Court bans sales of RealDVD indefinitely http://www.engadget.com/2008/10/09/court-bans-sales-of-realdvd-indefinitely/, accessed 4/29/09
Watermarking Could Lead to ‘X-Men’ Uploader
http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2009/04/watermarking-co/, accessed 4/29/09
 Provided by the U.S. Copyright Office: http://www.copyright.gov/fls/fl102.html