Of pirate movies and movie pirates

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I love movies! I love how an idea flashes like lightning from a twinkle in the eye, to paper, greenlighting, storyboard, production and ultimately to a hyper-teraplex a short drive from my house. Well it’s a little more involved than that, but you get the idea.

Movies are a classic intellectual property business, and like many similar money-for-dreams enterprises, the film industry is being subverted by converging digital technologies that make it cheaper to copy and distribute a movie than paying to make or see it.

“Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith” was available for download from a Bit Torrent site before it was in theatres. Anyone who has taken a walk down any street in Bangkok can find pirated movies of every flavor.

Quality is often as poor as one would expect from copies made by hand holding a digital camcorder in a movie theater. The magnetic power of movies, plus the guilty thrill of putting one over on The Man, compels many viewers to overlook abysmal quality and ethical compromise to spend a few Baht to source their entertainment from a street corner or clandestine peer-to-peer network.

The entertainment industry’s crusade to stamp out intellectual piracy has been as vigorous as it has been futile. What nobody in Hollywood, Manhattan or the West End seems to understand is that piracy is not a technical problem, it’s a business model problem.

Technical solutions have always failed. Sony made itself ridiculous trying to prevent digital copying of audio CDs with its Key2Audio technology.

Anyone with a $1.35 Sharpie marker could defeat it. Their attempt to install a rootkit on DVDs to screw up customer computers earned them ill will on a global scale.

Meanwhile, some Georgia Tech engineering students are trying to block the functioning of video cameras in movie theatres, and Thomson is working on a technology that inserts “artifacts” into the frame that are picked up by camcorders and spoil the reproduced picture. I wish them luck, I guess, but these hardly sound like terrifying deterrents.

Politicians have a weak spot for show people and continue to brew up legislation to champion the interests of a significant population of campaign finance contributors. With an election looming and with a keen eye on his political future in the government after next, Lord Mandelson has sponsored the Digital Economy Bill in Parliament that promises to withdraw Internet access to known intellectual property pirates.

Short of having a Net Nanny follow malefactors from Internet Café to public library to friends’ houses, how can a personal ban from the Internet possibly frustrate anyone but a small child downloading black market Teletubbies episodes with a “Speak ‘n Spell” toy?*But what if show biz wizards attacked the problem as a business model issue?

What if they changed distribution and revenue models to better satisfy entertainment customers and reduce the demand for pirated content? Bollywood does this by releasing DVDs at the same time movies are released in the theatre. Wouldn’t this lower theatre profits you ask? No--simultaneous promotion of both theatre and DVD delivery options boosts revenues for both products.

The same thing happened when videocassettes hit the market in the 1980s. The entertainment industry lined up to throw its collective self off the Hollywood Sign until their accountants showed them that video rentals added huge increments to ticket sales.

It was also a film buff’s dream come true, as back catalogs opened up, raining down treasure from every era and sector of film making—from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” to Roger Corman’s “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!”

Looking not to far ahead, simultaneous theatre and DVD release is just a first step of making new technology work for the entertainment industry, not against. It’s no secret that YouTube, Comcast, ATT, and Netflix are already jostling to emerge as the winners of the war to become Hollywood’s (and Bollywood’s, and Ginzawood’s, Beijingawood’s, Seoulawood’s, etc.) preferred channel for distribution of multimode/multimedia feature content.

It might take awhile, but the entertainment industry always finds out what’s good for it. They are already well on the way of learning how to leverage new digital technologies to rake in the countless billions of dollars lying idle in entertainment consumers’ pockets. Trust me, there’s still a bright future for party caterers, boutique owners, and Bentley dealers in West LA.

Meanwhile, we’d all be better off if our politicians worried less about the latest installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and got serious about the far more dangerous Pirates of the Horn of Africa.

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