Hollywood Does Not Take Piracy Seriously

Hollywood Does Not Take Piracy Seriously

The Hollywood film industry, or at least its official representatives in the MPAA, likes to talk tough about efforts to combat movie piracy on the internet.  They rabidly support DRM systems to supposedly keep their content locked-down (CSS, AACS, etc.), they push hard for new laws to control how video moves around online (like ACTA and COICA) and they will happily sue sites or individuals they feel to be contributing to mass copyright infringement (too many to name).  Nonetheless, a more objective examination of how movies get onto file-sharing networks, and then how those video files get distributed, would clearly show that the movie studios’ anti-pirate endeavors are fundamentally off-target.

Widespread DRM systems, like CSS on DVDs and AACS on Blu-Ray discs, have absolutely no bearing on how or whether movies end up online, as the primary leaks invariably come from within the production process.  DVD and Blu-Ray sourced files appear online *before* the date those discs are actually made available for sale.  And not just a few days before, but usually weeks if not months before the official DVD release to the public.  Someone in the production chain of Hollywood itself actively puts the video files online for anyone to download for free, and does so *before* any DRM protection can be applied to the film.  It strains credulity to think that the film studios that contract out these services could not increase pressure on their employees and partners to prevent this kind of leak.  Yet, in the decade or so since large-scale online copyright infringement began, they have never done so effectively.

Even more telling as a demonstration of Hollywood’s lack of seriousness about piracy, however, is the annual decision by the film studios to distribute DVD “screeners” to members of the film community in the period before and during “award season” leading up the Oscar ceremony.  Despite explicit knowledge that these critically acclaimed films will immediately be uploaded for mass distribution, and even while the movies themselves are still in theaters, and months before they are scheduled to come out on DVD, the studios continue the practice.  There have been half-hearted attempts in past years to devise a more secure system for distributing these screeners, but they proved unwieldly and ineffective.

Yet the crucial point is that according to Hollywood’s own cost-benefit analysis, the supposed lost sales from the piracy of its own best films is overwhelmingly out-weighed by just the mere opportunity of these films receiving a publicity bump from winning awards.  In their own calculations, Hollywood values the increased revenue an Oscar traditionally generates far more than they fear what a leaked copy loses them.  Such a decision is at minimum an admission by the people who should know movie finances best that what is gained by the screener policy is vastly larger than any fear of possible losses.

And just to underscore the point, I looked at a few of the highest profile films from the recent Golden Globes, that had screeners leak long before their DVD release dates.  In the case of Black Swan, a good quality version of the film from an awards screener appeared on file-sharing networks barely two weeks after the initial limited opening on December 3rd.  The film has nevertheless earned over $73 million in box office revenue and is likely to receive a great deal more publicity when Oscar nominations come out.  Another high profile film, The Fighter, had a screener copy leaked three weeks after its release on December 10th, something that the producing studio, Paramount in this case, had to know would happen if they chose to make screeners available.

The MPAA and its member studios are quick to bemoan their fate in a piracy-riddled internet, seemingly robbed of “billions” of revenue (at least according to the statistics they cite).  Yet it is hard to take their arguments seriously when they routinely chose to engage practices like sending out award screeners that has proven repeatedly to foment illegitimate distribution of high-profile films.  The possibility must exist therefore that Hollywood does in fact realize that the supposed damages from piracy are actually not as substantial as they so often claim.