Rolling news channels must love it when the latest set of illegal download figures land on their desk every few years. It gives them the chance to lazily put together some polemic V.T.s of teenagers with their faces subtly blacked out talking about how they don't feel any remorse when stealing from "the man". We then get some sanctimonious spiel about how these "evil young cyber pirates are forcing Hollywood's finest out of their jobs" by a reporter that looks as if he couldn't download a track off iTunes if his life depended on it.
I don't condone video piracy, far from it; if the movie industry collapsed I would be out of a job. What I find more objectionable however, is the blame being laid solely at the feet of the young "tech" generation when the industries reaction to the rise of internet piracy has been so lacklustre.
This week saw the publishing of the latest piracy figures. Internet consultancy group Envisional, despite sounding like a team on The Apprentice, have managed to release the results of a study that suggests that illegal downloads have risen 30% in the last four years in the UK. Although this figure seems very high, internet piracy increased by the same amount in 2004 alone, and when you consider the rate at which download speeds have increased in the last four years, it could have been much worse. Their study suggests that the top five box office movies of 2010 were downloaded around 1.4 million times. However, these movies made a collective $4.7 Billion worldwide, so why is your average basement-dwelling adolescent going to worry about that?
Since global internet speeds reached the capacity to share 700MB video files, the industry as a whole has been dragging its feet. The first legal music downloading platforms were released in 2003, and were already making hundreds of millions of dollars by the time the first legal movie streaming services arrive in 2006. The movie industry as a whole has done three main things to counter the rise of the torrent sites: Drastically increased cinema prices, increased the amount of unnecessary 3D releases that cannot be filmed from inside a theatre, and made scapegoats out of a few perpetrators, forcing them to pay astronomical amounts in fines that they obviously will never be able to afford. They have also realised that the old scaremongering ads, which compare downloading to stealing cars and accuse offenders of funding terrorism, have had little effect. Now we are greeted in the cinema by the bloke out of Gavin & Stacey, telling us that he won't be able to get a job if people keep downloading his films. Anyone who has seen Lesbian Vampire Killers will be racing to the nearest torrent site.
The rise of iTunes, Zune and LoveFilm are all helping to cut back the number of illegal downloads, but if the film industry want to make some real progress they need to realize some difficult truths. People will always download films illegally. Video piracy was around long before Tim Berners-Lee, and as long as people have access to the internet it is, unfortunately, impossible to stop them without compromising net neutrality. What the aim should be is to keep this number as small as possible, and these are a few ways in which this can happen.
1. Stop treating people who download films like criminals. Most people who download movies are young people who simply can't afford to pay the ever-increasing price of admission. They are not stupid, and telling them that their downloading is funding terrorism is not true, and they know it. Perhaps if studios listened to the people downloading films instead of threatening them, they could learn something about how to stop it.
2. Stop the rise of cinema prices and improve the cinema going experience. The cost of admission has sky-rocketed in recent years, and a visit to your local multiplex is about as much fun as going to the supermarket. Cinema going should be an adventure. Independent movie houses have benefited greatly from the introduction of bars and cafés and the big chains need to catch up.
3. Provide more On Demand Content. Many people in the UK don't live near a good indie cinema, and can't see the smaller films, the main casualties of internet piracy, unless they look online. The introduction of CurzonOnDemand last year was a huge step forward, and simultaneous cinema, DVD and online releases are the future in my opinion.
4. Target the uploaders of copyrighted material, not the downloaders. In researching this article, it didn't take long to see that the most popular search on one of the top torrent sites was for the username of someone who uploads DVDs in sparkling quality as soon as they become available.
Hollywood studios have been stomping around complaining about this issue like a toddler in a tantrum for years now, but it is the small, independent projects that suffer the most. The industry needs to find a new approach if they are serious about tackling this problem, and only then can we make a positive step forward.