The Movie Pirates Were Right

By  · Published on September 9th, 2013

The MPAA was wrong in 2004 when it launched its wonderfully mockable “You Wouldn’t Steal a Car” campaign to fight piracy because they elevated a grossly uneven analogy to slogan status. Even with all other things being equal, comparing a movie ticket to something you take out a loan for is pretty moronic. The truth is that downloading a movie or TV show is closer in spirit to speeding in that car you wouldn’t steal: driving over the speed limit is an easy crime to commit; a lot of people do it without qualms; and although it happens regularly without incident, it sometimes leads to catastrophic consequences.

Admittedly even that analogy fails because of the uncomfortable equation of loss of life and limb to loss of livelihood, but it’s streets ahead of the MPAA’s now-abandoned scare tactic. Still, just as people are going to text while driving despite dozens of poignantly disfigured warnings, online piracy is (and always was) here to stay.

In the past few weeks, three things have happened that highlight this pointless battle again and prove that the pirate chant, “We’d pay if you let us!” was right.

The Study

The Munich School of Management and Copenhagan Business School released a study showing that piracy can actually help smaller films in certain circumstances. However, the most important finding of the five-year study was that revenue didn’t spike for larger films (on the whole) after piracy giant MegaUpload was shut down – a data point that contradicts the MPAA’s standard position that big money is being siphoned by illegal downloading.

Obviously it’s a more complex situation (than one study can explore), and it comes with the caveat that small films only benefit from piracy word-of-mouth if they are lucky enough to get distribution before piracy can scare off distributors. Still, it’s difficult to read through the study and point to the “lost money” that the MPAA warns about.

Unsurprisingly, the MPAA rebuffed the work, saying that it was inconclusive:

“Unfortunately, the findings in the study aren’t entirely clear and the authors’ speculation about the results and why they arrived at those results is just that – total speculation.”

I think they meant, “Fortunately” in that vague takedown. What’s probably a more accurate dismissal from the MPAA is that the study wasn’t funded by the MPAA.

At the very least, the study confirms something that we’ve know at gut level for a long time: that piracy and box office have an exceedingly complicated relationship.

MPAA 0, Piracy 1

The Verdict

Even more groundbreaking is the U.S. District Court decision that download hub Hotfile was liable for copyright infringement for housing pirated content on its network. The full decision is still sealed for a few days (and no doubt deserves a thorough read), but MPAA chairman Chris Dodd was pleased with the verdict that held that the site was in the wrong for incentivizing piracy by paying users who uploaded illegal content even as Hotfile argued that they dealt with illegal content responsibly in response to takedown notices.

This precedent isn’t exactly an open door, but it’s solid footing on a slippery slope to laying liability at the foot of websites who don’t properly police their own network for illegal content.

MPAA 1, Piracy 1

The Appeal

Not beholden to the studio system-financed MPAA, Kevin Spacey delivered a knockout punch via Netflix and House of Cards, stating bluntly that the TV industry (and by extension, the film industry) need to adapt in order to survive in a shifting culture of content consumption.

Here he is effectively echoing the offer-it-and-we’ll-pay pirate mantra:

That line from Field of Dreams comes to mind.

The dynamic has changed thanks in no small part to the popularity of piracy and the proliferation of technology, so I could update the score board, but it seems clear that the pirates have won.

Their prize? Paying like the rest of us.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.