We’ve heard the yells for years now, ever since the proliferation of high-speed internet access, that piracy of copyrighted material–be it music, movies or otherwise–in the form of illegal downloading was stealing millions if not billions of dollars away from the copyright holders. Coming from a background that dealt with the value of someone getting your product for free (both in my publishing career working for free-distribution magazines and in my music collection which leans greatly toward bands that allow the free distribution of their concert recordings) I cannot disagree more. It’s my belief that all of this downloading that tasks these industries so much actually benefits them. Part of the reason I think it seems so frustrating to the people in question is that it is so easily trackable today. It is possible to know how many people, relatively, are downloading a particular piece of material off the internet. So the bean-counters jump straight to the conclusion that each and every instance of downloading is money lost. Not true. In fact, it could very well be that each instance of downloading actually helps drive revenue down the line, particularly if the material in question is good.
I will say this, if the material sucks, downloading will cost you money, but not as much as it seems. It benefits companies that produce and distribute lousy material to keep its relative lack of quality hidden, thereby tricking people into paying for something they think might be good. But I have a hard time feeling sorry for companies losing out on scamming people into paying for garbage. And people will pick up on its lack of quality a bit slower if its exposure is kept down, but it’ll happen none-the-less. If the material is good, a little free exposure leads to all sorts of things. With music, it leads to increased CD sales, concert ticket sales, tee shirts, hats and most importantly, referrals to friends which builds a bigger fan base that leads to increased CD sales, concert tickets, etc. With movies, it works the same. If the movie is good, you get an upshot in ticket sales, merchandising, DVD sales, rentals and the same benefit of referrals to friends and family. Cutting out the free distribution cuts down on the fan base to make money from.
Before the internet, both of these industries benefited from people sharing their material for free, but it wasn’t so easily trackable. There was simply no way to tell how many people recorded your movie on their VCR, or made copies of movies they rented from the video store, or burned copies of CDs and mix tapes for friends, or recorded songs they liked off of the radio. This kind of behavior with copyrighted material has always been rampant, only before it happened in ways that the industry didn’t or couldn’t see, and all the while they benefited from the increased exposure without even realizing it. Fighting this kind of sharing material of value harms the industries in question, and it is not piracy, nor is it something new. The music industry did nearly irreparable damage to itself fighting file sharing instead of seeing the possibilities of building ever-larger fan bases easier than ever before. The movie industry will do the same kind of damage to itself if they follow in those footsteps.
And here’s a little evidence to support my claims. Here is a list of the 10 most pirated movies of 2009. These are the 10 movies that were illegally downloaded the most this year. Now compare that list with this one, the top box office films of the year. Notice any similarities? There are five movies there that finished in the top 10 movies in domestic box office for the year, including number 1, The Transformers, and number 2, Harry Potter, both of whom are approaching $1 billion in worldwide gross. In fact, the 10 movies that appear on the most pirated list have grossed nearly $4 billion combined world-wide. For 10 movies! The same 10 that have been downloaded more than any others. Boy, that piracy has really been sucking the life out of the film industry, huh?
Further, there are only 3 movies on the list that have done less than $200 million world-wide; one is a mediocre Guy Ritchie British mob movie RocknRolla; one is a political thriller with Ben Affleck (sure, State of Play has gotten good reviews, but it’s still a political thriller starring Ben Affleck); and Knowing, a horrible apocalyptic thriller with Nicolas Cage. So my point stands; downloading helps good movies (or at least movies with positive value) and hurts bad ones. And how is that a bad thing?
This is progress, folks. Make better stuff, and you have more possibilities to benefit from it than ever before. Make junk, and you can get hammered on it quicker and more completely than ever before. The answer here is to make more good films. It seems obvious, but in this internet age, people pick up on crap much faster than ever before. And excuse me if I’m not weeping for an industry’s right to sap money out of people with unredemptive garbage. If they really want to “stop piracy”, then they should start by calling it what it actually is: free marketing and word of mouth advertising. That would be a start.