Hollywood Studios Battle Digital Theft

Hollywood may at last be joining the ranks of Napster and other companies who are fighting back in the battle against what some companies call “digital theft.”

Media companies say that piracy is fast becoming a mainstream pursuit.  This digital looting comes at a time when sales of DVDs, a large percentage of film studio revenues, are trending downward.  Indeed, in 2008, DVD shipments plunged to their lowest levels in five years.  

Executives are now concerned that the recession will cause more users to view stolen shows and movies.

“Young people, in particular, conclude that if it’s so easy, it can’t be wrong,” Richard Cotton, general counsel for NBC Universal, told the New York Times.

For years people have exchanged illegal copies of TV shows, songs and films via the Internet.   However, the slow download process, often using a peer-to-peer technology called BitTorrent, required a healthy dose of patience and sophisticated users.

But now, with help from a simple search engine, users don’t need to even download such content.  Anyone can locate free copies of current movie releases still in theaters in a matter of minutes.  And classic TV shows, like every “Seinfeld” episode ever made, is also freely available for streaming, according to a New York Times report.

Some of these digital copies originate from bootlegs, while others are copies of the advance review videos that studios distribute prior to a release.

TorrentFreak.com, a German Web site that keeps track of which shows are downloaded the most, estimates that each episode of the NBC series “Heroes” is downloaded five million times at a substantial loss to the network.  The show averages roughly 10 million American viewers each week on TV.

A number of streaming sites are making it easier than ever to view free Hollywood content online.   Such sites allow users to start watching video immediately, without the need to transfer a full copy to their hard drive, making it easier than ever to view the free content online.

Since many of these sites are located in countries such as China with poor piracy enforcement efforts, they are difficult to monitor, and media firms do not have a true sense of just how much content is being stolen.

Many experts say the practice is becoming much more ubiquitous.

“Streaming has gotten efficient and cheap enough and it gives users more control than downloads do. This is where piracy is headed,” Forrester Research analyst James L. McQuivey told The New York Times.

“Consumers are under the impression that everything they want to watch should be easily streamable.”

Some of the initial battles over Internet video piracy involved YouTube, a Google -owned Web site that introduced many people to streaming.  

However, although some legal issues between YouTube and copyright owners remain, such as a $1 billion lawsuit filed by Viacom, the environment “has improved markedly,” said Mr. Cotton.

YouTube currently employs digital flags and filters to weed out illegal content.

However, if media companies are winning the fight against illegal video clips, they are losing the war over illicit copies of full-length films and TV episodes.  Indeed, illegal streams and downloads now comprise about 40 percent of the revenue the industry loses annually as a result of piracy, according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).

“It is becoming, among some demographics, a very mainstream behavior,” Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, told the New York Times.

The files are alarmingly easy to locate, in part because of work by people like Mohy Mir, who started the Toronto-based video streaming Web site SuperNova Tube.

The site is run by Mr. Mir, 23, and one other employee, and allows anyone to post a video clip of any length.  As the site has grown in popularity, SuperNova Tube has become a warehouse for copyrighted content.

The new movies “Taken” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” could easily be found on the site in recent days by simply following “link farms,” links from other sites, which guide users to secret hoards of copyrighted content at various Web locations.

Mr. Mir says he was unaware the files were there, and that his company swiftly responds to requests from majority rights-holders.

He also says that piracy is actually his biggest problem, since advertisers tend to flee when they are made aware of any potential infringing material.  He said is constantly removing files at the request of Hollywood studios.

However, some might think Mr. Mir’s reluctance is contradicted by his site’s name and its slogan: “We Work with uploaders, not against them.”

The site’s name is based on the popular SuperNova BitTorrent hub.

“I think about getting sued every day. If that happens it will definitely take us out of business,” he told the New York Times.

Mr. Mir does indeed have cause for concern. In December, the MPAA sued three Web sites that it claimed were assisting copyright infringement by identifying and indexing Web links to pirated material.

The MPAA’s director of worldwide antipiracy operations, John Malcolm, told the New York Times that although the association does not sue individuals for viewing pirated films, additional lawsuits against Web sites are in the pipeline.  However, he admitted the challenge is fierce.

“There are a lot of very technologically sophisticated people out there who are very good at this and very good at hiding,” he said.

“We have limited resources to bring to the fight.”

With the vast amount of pirated material available online, Hollywood studios are turning to technological solutions to battle the problem.

Additionally, media firms are learning from the music industry’s mistakes and trying to avoid widespread implementation of piracy techniques.   The top lesson is providing video on a platform users want.

Mark Ishikawa, founder and CEO of Bay TSP’s, sees a relationship between the availability of content through legal means and their popularity on pirate networks.

“When DVD releases are postponed, demand always goes up, because people don’t have an authorized channel to buy,” he told the New York Times.

As a partial response to the piracy problem, a plethora of video Web sites now include the latest episodes of virtually every broadcast TV show.  

And studios are testing video-on-demand releases and other means to offer films on demand.   The studios hope that legal alternatives will stop the pirating.   By comparison, waited three years to provide legal options for online listeners.

“That’s how you start to marginalize piracy “” not just by using the stick, but by using the carrot,” said Mr. Garland.

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