The Mercatus Center at George Mason University rolled out a new website this morning— piracydata.org—that attempts to collect data about whether or not the most pirated movies (as ranked by TorrentFreak) are available for lawful viewing online. The site’s authors seem to suggest that 1) the content industry is doing a poor job of making content available; and 2) piracy would go away if the content industry would just release more movies sooner, cheaper or in a different format. Both arguments are wrong.
First, let’s look at the fact. The website had several errors at launch, and it still had some errors as of this afternoon. (For example, Pacific Rim is currently available via YouTube rental.) But using corrected data we can see that six of the ten movies listed are available legally on various digital sites (Google Play, Amazon, iTunes, etc.). In addition (and not mentioned on the website), three of the ten are available for purchase On-Demand via Comcast and four of the ten are available on AT&T U-Verse. The idea that studios are not making movies available to consumers is nonsense. Today there are more ways than ever to watch movies and TV shows legally online, and more are constantly being added.
In addition, many of these movies are still available in theaters. Each of the current top 10 movies listed on the site is a summer release, i.e., it was widespread in theaters across the United States between May and August. Many of these movies (for example, Elysium and Monsters University) are still in small town theaters around the United States, and they are also just now being released internationally. The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is being released in France and Belgium tomorrow, Elysium was released in Venezuela last Friday, and 2 Guns won’t see theaters in Australia, Italy Switzerland, Norway and Japan until the end of October or beginning of November.
Second, even though there are legal options, piracy continues. For example, yesterday’s premiere of The Walking Dead was pirated 500,000 times within 16 hours, despite the fact that it is available to stream for free, today, for the next 27 days, on AMC’s website and distributed in 125 countries around the world. The music industry is another example of this where almost all new singles are available for purchase and download legally online, but music is still consistently pirated. And even if a film is not available for stream or purchase at a given moment, that does not justify stealing it from the creators and makers who worked hard to make it. That’s equivalent to saying “I stole a book because it wasn’t available for free at the library” or “I stole your iPhone because the wait at the Apple Store was too long.”
Finally, it is naïve to suggest eliminating “pay windows” (i.e. the time between theatrical release and online release) as a solution for reducing piracy since this ignores the economic reality of how studios make money. Making streaming movies available for free would also reduce piracy, but it is clearly not sustainable. Actors, directors, writers, producers, stuntmen and special effects technicians all need to be paid for the work they do. Piracy not only steals from them, it steals from consumers who want the next Argo or King’s Speech. The bottom line is if we want the U.S. movie and television industry to continue to produce the most innovative and creative content around the world, then we need to be willing to pay for it, just like we pay for our cars, our phones and our computers.