By Stuart Fuller
The annual list of the most illegally downloaded movies, published late in December, underlined that the issue of digital piracy shows no signs of abating. As technology gets faster, smaller and cheaper than the opportunity to illegally download, share or stream movies increases. With technology companies wanting to move into new high growth markets such as South American, India and South East Asia, then so too does the access to illegal material.
The most illegally downloaded film of 2015 was the epic science fiction film, Interstellar, which digital content consultancy firm Excipio found had been downloaded 46.7 million times in 2015, closely followed by Furious 7 (44.8 million) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (41.6 million). Compared to the top three films illegally downloaded in 2014 (Wolf of Wall Street, Frozen and RoboCop), the increase in downloads has increased worryingly from approximately 90 million to over 140 million.
Whilst streaming services such as NetFlix or Amazon Prime offer low cost, high quality access to thousands of titles, it is the demand for the latest titles that drives people to search for the illegal content. Undoubtedly, these services have had an impact in reducing overall digital piracy but they can do nothing to prevent the demand for the latest films.
There have been a number of public campaigns launched by organisations such as the Moving Picture Association of America highlighting the knock-on effects of illegal downloads but as enforcement of end users is so difficult and problematic, the opportunity cost is almost zero. The big question that many of the rights holders should be asking is how to prevent digital copies of these films being made available for downloading in the first instance. Whilst there may still be the odd person sitting in a cinema with a hidden camera (or even using Periscope to live stream it), the quality is poor.
Many different versions of a film exist prior to the end version appearing in cinemas. Copies, normally transported on very copyable DVDs, are sent to the press, movie reviewers or other industry insiders. A few weeks ago, The Hollywood Reporter discovered that a pirated version of Quentin Tarantino's new film, The Hateful Eight' was available from some file-sharing sites bearing a digital watermark that identified it as from a DVD sent to a production and finance firm involved in the movie industry in California.
With Star Wars: The Force Awakens breaking all records over Christmas there can be little argument that in 12 months’ time we will be talking about tens of millions of illegal downloads for the latest instalment in one of the most successful franchises of all time. Unfortunately, the film studios only have limited budgets to tackle the issue of piracy and will continue to rely on the search engines to play their part in removing websites that offer streaming of infringed titles, and web hosting companies to remove illegal content.
Understanding that digital piracy is wrong is actually the first step we can all take. By educating those around us that there is no such thing as a victim-less crime when talking not just about piracy but all forms of intellectual property infringement we can make a difference to the demand if not the supply of illegal material online.