There’s no doubt that piracy is a divisive and complicated subject. Though the extent of piracy is at least somewhat known, reasonable people disagree widely about the causes of it and just what the impacts of it are.
However, a recent opinion piece by Timothy B Lee, has made another stab at addressing the issue. By referencing data from the site Piracydata.org, which looks at the most-pirated movies each week on Torrentfreak and compares them to a list of ones available for legal streaming/purchase, Lee puts much of the blame for film piracy on the doorstep of Hollywood.
According to Lee’s argument, motion picture studios do not do enough to make their films available for legal viewing online and, by doing so, encourage people to download their content illegally.
But while Lee does have a point that availability is a major factor when it comes determining how much a particular work is pirated, it is from being the sole factor.
Recent analysis by the Columbia Journalism Review and others have picked apart Lee’s arguments, which has been further undermined by a correction in the article itself, one that says Lee understated the number of works legally available.
But while I’m the first to agree that content creators can and should do more to make their works available legally, there’s a tremendous leap between saying that rightsholders have more that they can do and that rightsholders are responsible for the piracy of their own work.
The truth is, while blaming rightsholders, especially large organizations like the MPAA, is a tempting narrative for many. The truth is much more complex and vexing.
Availability Doesn’t Kill Piracy
First off, though I’ve said it before recently, it bears repeating. While widespread legal availability can reduce piracy, it doesn’t eliminate it or, in many cases, drastically reduce it.
As the recent NetNames study pointed out, piracy is continuing to increase in the United States despite that fact that it has the most robust legitimate market for content in the world. In the broadest sense, increased availability may have slowed down the rate it which piracy rises, but it hasn’t slowed the increase.
However, for more anecdotal proof, one only has to look at the TV industry. Though much is made about how heavily pirated the difficult-to-access-legally show Game of Thrones is, other shows, such as Breaking Bad, also see record-breaking levels of piracy despite the fact they are available on Netflix. Even the new season of Arrested Development, which was available as a Netflix exclusive, was pirated heavily as well.
In fact, the day before Lee posted his column, news came out that the new season of “The Walking Dead” was seeing extremely high levels of piracy despite the fact the new episodes were available for free, legal streaming on the AMC website a mere day after airing.
In short, while availability does play a role in reducing piracy to some degree, the general popularity of a show or movie (specifically it’s popularity with the demographics that make up most of the pirate community) plays a much larger role in determining how many people pirate content.
Basically, it’s likely that the top ten most pirated movies wouldn’t change significantly if they were available. Instead, piracy would simply be reduced by some undetermined amount and movie studios would be selling their works under far less lucrative arrangements.
While there’s a debate to be had about how much piracy actually impacts sales of a movie, there’s not much debate about which contracts and arrangements movie studios find the most lucrative.
While services like Netflix are an important revenue source for movie studios, they simply don’t pay as well as other revenue streams, including theatrical releases. Though it’s easy to malign release schedules, they are put into place so that a film has the best chance to earn as much revenue as possible and, hopefully, earn back its expenses.
In the physical world, one would not say to a store manager that, if they simply put everything on sale the moment it came in the door, that the amount of shoplifting would decrease. While that might be true, it wouldn’t eliminate shoplifting and, more importantly, it would deprive the shopkeeper of a significant portion of their revenue, likely much more than shoplifting does.
More importantly though, one would not look at a shopkeeper’s refusal to slash their prices and then blame them for the shoplifting that takes place.
So while I’m the first to agree that movie studios should do what they can to compress release windows and make works available more broadly more quickly, the release schedule is going to be dictated by what is most lucrative for the film.
After all, the movie industry is a business and their obligation is to maximize their profits.
The Ethical Problem
The bigger problem with Lee’s argument is an ethical one because, when it comes to piracy, availability shouldn’t matter.
The choice of whether or not to buy, rent or otherwise view a movie is consumer choice like any others. If a studio wants too much for a film or doesn’t have it in an adequately convenient format, the consumer is more than free to simply not watch it.
If a studio opted to charge $10,000 to view a new film and only held the viewings on a screen located on Mars, that would be their right. The consumer, on the other hand, has the right to not pay that and not see the film. They have complete freedom to walk away and give their money and/or attention to other studios that make more reasonable offers.
Movies are not essential to life. They aren’t food, medicine, etc. No one needs to see a film. As good as some movie marketing it, no one is forced or compelled to see a specific movie.
Rather than pirating a film that offers terms or a price tag they don’t like, a person is free to show their support for films that do meet their criteria. If “Pacific Rim” is too much money or too inconvenient, a customer can support other films that are cheaper and easier. That not only avoids piracy, but shows support for more customer-friendly business models and works to push other studios to follow suit.
In short, movie studios are not forcing people to pirate their films. The consumer always has choices, even if the choice is to view something else or to simply turn off their TV/monitor. Consumers who pirate content choose to do so and they choose so over countless other legitimate options.
If availability were the major factor many make it out to be, the studios wouldn’t be losing out to piracy, but rather, to more readily-available works. In short, it would be Netflix, not The Pirate Bay, that’s causing problems for movie studios.
While you will struggle to find organizations more disliked online than the MPAA and the RIAA, blaming them for piracy of their own works is outrageous. Is there more that they can and should do? Yes. But blaming them and the organizations they represent for the misuse of their content is simply ludicrous.
This point is underscored by the correction in Lee’s article. According to updated statistics, in the last three weeks, more than half of all of the top 10 most pirated movies have been available for at least legal purchase digitally (53%). In short, despite his implication that lack of availability is what breeds piracy, over half of the most pirated films were indeed legally available at the time they appeared on the list.
Simply put, piracy, its causes and its impacts are all complex issues that can not be summarized with clean statements. Blaming movie studios or other content creators for piracy is not only a matter of blaming the victim, but is just as unrealistic of a statement as putting all of the blame on any single entity.
Solutions are going to have to be holistic in nature, looking at all aspects of the problem and all of the roles that are played in creating it.
As tempting as it is to simplify the problem for the purpose of a narrative. Doing so not only fails to produce real solutions but, in some cases, can result blame being placed on those who are being victimized.