The Death of Piracy
By The Wysiwyg Team | 25-May-2007
Piracy - no, not the eye-patch type, but the copyright infringement variety. Product piracy has been with us since the industrial revolution, but today it is most common in the distribution of music, films and television shows. Compared to the film and TV industries, those music bods have been there, done that, bought the t-shirt (or illegal download) and, nowadays, seen the video.
But is piracy really the conquering invader we are warned about by industry propaganda or will it one day concede a dramatic surrender? How about, rather than a fight to the death, we work together for a cease-fire and a harmonious future? Piracy only thrives because there is a gap in the market, with consumers feeling their needs are not being met. They want it now, they want it cheap, they want it easy and they want as much as they can get - and finally some people are listening.
Pirates would have no plan of attack if we could all get the same content free. Tedious release schedules give the pirates opportunity to sell us illegal copies 'before the official release date'. But street pirates could shift the same number of units selling legitimate copies instead of contraband if the distributors worked with them instead of against them.
The late 1990s witnessed a boom in illegal music file sharing through peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, such as the infamous Napster and Kazaa, which took its toll on traditional revenue streams for record companies. Peer to peer file exchange arose from the ashes of the dot com era alongside open-sourced programming and other decentralising practices, which questioned the status quo. Services like Napster, Grokster, Hotline and Kazaa allow people to share large files with each other quickly and easily. On a P2P network, if a computer requests a file, instead of slowly copying it from a single server to a computer, it copies pieces of it from a thousand computers which speeds up the process exponentially.
When music moved to digital files small enough to transfer across the internet a problem arose: people started swapping music files, piracy rose and the music industry howled. The war on new technology had begun.
Taking the fight to the courts, the media bayed for blood. Inevitably Napster, the first great music-based P2P service fell. Others followed, but new ones constantly took up the call to arms. P2P became a dirty word, synonymous with crooks, thieves and pirates.
But tough US Court rulings are not enough to keep a good idea down and the music industry finally learnt that old adage - if you can't beat them, join them. It was pointless to make new technologies illegal, far better to use them to the industry's advantage. Today online music distribution has been embraced, with the once rebellious Napster now a legitimate online music store - only one of the estimated 300 services available, compared to a handful a few years back. And with this legitimacy, P2P has now been awarded the shiny badge of respectability.
Surely with the relevant case of music so recent a memory, film executives would have the opportunity to win the war without having to unsheathe their weapons? Apparently not. US TV writer/ producer John Rogers is incredulous. "What's really amazing is that TV had the perfect test case, seeing the music business practically destroying itself and totally alienating their core fans for the past six or so years — and they look at that and say, 'Yeah, that's the way to go.'"
Online movie piracy was once considered by the Hollywood studios as seemingly impossible, and so it was: movie files were so large as to be unwieldy and with most internet users in the early/ mid 1990s using dial-up, it could take over 2 days to download a complete feature film. And no one needed a film that badly. Yet learning from Tom Cruise's Maverick in 'Top Gun', the "need for speed" was soon upon us and broadband arrived with such promises a plenty. As "large-sized file transfer" problems became less severe with compression technologies such as DivX, sharing became more widespread and began to affect large software files like animations and movies. And with that, movies could be trafficked through the Internet providing consumers with exciting, new territories to explore. The vast majority of which were illegal and so DivX joined the lawyer's hit list.
In the past, files were distributed by point-to-point technology with a central uploader distributing files to downloaders. With these systems, a large number of downloaders for a popular file used an increasingly larger amount of bandwidth. If there were too many downloads, the server became unavailable. The opposite is true for peer-to-peer networking, the more downloaders the faster the file distribution. With 'swarming technology', as implemented in file sharing systems like eDonkey2000 or BitTorrent, downloaders help the uploader by picking up some of its uploading responsibilities.
P2P technology was employed by the brains behind Kazaa, Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström, to create Skype. This in turn revolutionised the communications industry and helped move P2P networks to legitimacy. Revelling in this newfound acceptance, we can now look forward to the introduction of Joost, the first grand worldwide P2PTV conduit. Joost's vast library of quality content will help establish its name, but it will be the absence of any fees that make it stand alone amongst it's competitors. With an advertising-backed model, customers plugging in anywhere in the world can enjoy content without paying a penny.
Sounds like the pirates lost that one.
But the advancements in technology don't end there. DivX, like Napster was initially feared, but progressed to secure industry acceptance. DivX sealed deals with electronics companies to include their codec in home DVD players, enabling people to download a film, burn it to DVD and watch it at home on their TV. This effectively picked the pocket of the pirates, as the costs involved are so scant as to under-cut any illegal street seller.
Making matters worse for the pirates is the added value that many download services supply. The technology-literate can enjoy more than the just the film itself with many sites providing a plethora of added extras to excite film lovers. With anything from downloadable scripts or posters to special features, fans can immerse themselves more fully in the world of films keeping even the fussiest of fan boys happy. The online communities promise interactivity with other enthusiasts, and recommendations specifically monitored to reflect your personal tastes. All this and at the best quality.
So with the films available online legally and complete with all the trimmings, what is plan B for today's pirate?
For many, it's the immediate gratification they provide. If you are in England why wait for the film that's screening to American audiences? Why delay getting your hands on a DVD if you don't have to?
The high cost of producing numerous film prints for exhibition in cinemas meant that it used to take a film at least a year to open in cinemas around the globe. Money men need to feel that one window of opportunity is closed before they open the next one, in this case the end of a long cinematic run delays the arrival of the film on DVD. Because of this, DVDs did not come out for at least 12 months (and with zone restrictions), and then comes the television broadcasting window, then the cable window and so on.
But some of Hollywood's most influential figures are looking to create a more simultaneous experience. George Lucas opened ‘Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith’ on the same day internationally, an idea supported by John Fithian, from the National Association of Theatre Owners "we have consistently advocated reduced or eliminated windows between the US and international theatrical release."
The advent of digital cinema projectors will allow more films to open all over the world at the same time, as it cunningly sidesteps the time lags and costs incurred of it's cousin the 35mm. Curt Marvis, from download giant CinemaNow, is looking forward to this change, "it is about time. I think we will see the Hollywood studios adapt their traditional release 'windows' more and more." Some distributors are already making their DVDs available only 1 to 2 months after a cinematic release and it seems to be an idea that is catching on. In Norway they are testing selling DVDs in cinema lobbies and Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh has put his considerable weight behind the matter. The director happily experimented with no window at all, allowing his murder mystery ‘Bubble’ to be watched at a cinema, on a DVD or on cable TV, all on the same day.
Some argue that such examples are merely the indulgences of big names that can afford the luxury of a low budget flop, and Soderbergh shouldn't bite the hand that feeds. His resolution has not been swayed by such criticisms: "The studio model has to be rethought," he told Hollywood Reporter. "Everything changes and evolves. We've got to get with it, embrace it and find a way to make it work...The movies are not the way they used to be when I grew up." The movie business, in his own words is "out of whack."
Simultaneous release may have the traditional money men shaking their heads, but as the windows close it will remove one more of the motivations that people have to go to pirates: seeing the films before they come out.
But lastly what about the pirates themselves - where do they stand in this war?
How about side-by-side with the film distributors? It's really not too far-fetched. Supplying pirates with legitimate DVDs at cheap prices legitimises the pirate networks, turning pirates into conventional points of purchase (POP). This benefits all parties and provides a new, yet established, outlet. Time Warner and Twentieth Century Fox have both met with success having implemented this scheme in China, though the inability to find legitimate Western DVDs and the low wages in China have also been influential factors. However with a tried and tested example out there, it cannot be too long until other distributors like Wysiwyg, look to the pirate as friend, not foe. Indeed Wysiwyg invites pirates to send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a view to making more money by selling more, better quality DVDs.
As Hollywood attempts to pass some further legislation or publicly whinge about the money it is losing from piracy, it fails to see the bigger picture. In the war between technology and piracy, technology can win and, like the reformation of street pirates, can now help establish a new world order. The technologies that once formed the greatest threat to the media industries have now removed that very threat. Oh, sweet irony.