Illegal Downloads: Friend or Foe?

Written by Zac Platt.

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Last week Deadline posted an article explaining the findings of a paper published by European researchers examining the effects that last year’s shutdown of file hosting service ‘Megaupload’ has had on box office revenues. The study concludes that removing this illegal distributor mostly benefits the blockbusters such as The Avengers or Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, while smaller films were impacted negatively. The researchers argue that the “social network effects” of piracy help smaller projects with less marketing power by spreading the word “from consumers with low willingness to pay to consumers with high willingness to pay”.

Generally, I dismiss the justification people have that illegally downloading allows them to ‘sample’ movies and TV shows so that they can determine what to buy (I mean, you don’t go to a restaurant and decide to pay only if you think the meal was “worth it”). But there definitely is merit to the idea. I look at movies like A Scanner Darkly that now grace my DVD collection, which I never would have come across if someone didn’t throw me a USB and say “Hey, check this out”.

Whether this marketing boost outweighs the loss of potential revenue is debatable, but there are some more obvious benefits that piracy has brought the industry. By creating a free and generally dependable distribution method, available at any time from anywhere, content is now on demand for anyone with a decent internet connection. The internet creates a global community that doesn’t want to be left behind by poor international release schedules. This puts the ball back in the court of the distributors to put together a competitive timetable. The impact this has had on audiences is most obvious with television.

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Look at NBC’s The Office (one of the most popular sitcoms of the last decade); Season three concluded in May 2007 with the Region 1 (USA, Canada etc) DVD release in September of the same year. But for Region 4 audiences (South America, Australia, Oceania, etc) the season was released in two halves, the first in August 2008 and the second in April 2009. That’s an almost 2 year lag from when the series was fully available for illegal download to when it could be purchased legally. Cut to today where you can view and purchase most major new TV shows on iTunes within a few days.

Were it not for the need to compete with the ease of file sharing sites, it’s hard to imagine the digital storefronts and subscription services we now have access to being what they are today. The distributors and networks were far too sluggish leaving piracy the best service to viewers. It’s available to us whenever we wanted, free of DRM constricting us to certain devices, and infinitely easy for us to store and share. So yes, there absolutely were some great changes made to how we can enjoy and access film and television that we mostly have piracy to thank for.

But while sites like Megaupload or Piratebay may have once been a necessity, now they are a huge obstacle for emerging distribution methods and providers. There is a mentality that physical copies are more legitimate than legal methods of online acquisition, which in turn devalues them to many consumers. Why pay for an iTunes version if the pirated version is as high quality? If it’s free anyway, why not just download a show rather than putting up with the ads on a streaming website? Technology and internet access are largely to the point that most people can do everything distributors do, making it more of an optional donation for a consumer to purchase a digital copy of a movie.

Because buyers now need to justify paying to themselves, most of the time they will stick to one system to make that library seem more valid. One of the most exciting things about emerging technology and cheap distribution should be that it levels the playing field for productions that don’t have the capital of blockbusters. But with consumers devaluing alternative methods, filmmakers are forced to play the game and give a third of their earnings to someone like iTunes.

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It’s not so much that piracy is taking money out of studio pockets, but that it’s limiting the incentive for people to come up with and invest in new ways for us to enjoy content in this digital revolution. File hosting sites like Megaupload do have a place in keeping the distributors competitive and spreading the word on less promoted movies and programs. Even if Megaupload was some great malevolent evil, the government wasting resources on shutting it down is nothing more than a band-aid, given how many other sites are standing by.

So what’s the answer? You are. If you’re in a position where you need to wait months to see the new season of your favourite show, forcing you to boycott the forums and online communities less it be spoiled, then feel free to hit up the torrents. Or if that obscure sci-fi flick you heard about but haven’t been able to find a copy of is getting passed around the office, go right ahead and copy it to your USB. But if what you’re after is easily purchased on your preferred device for a reasonable price when you’re looking for it, then do the right thing and reward them for making something you want available just the way you want to enjoy it.

– Z.P.

About Zac Platt

Sydney-dweller Zac Platt, a consumer of film, television, gaming, comic books, and other things that distract from the world at large.

View all posts by Zac Platt

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