Feature Article
Movie Piracy, Why Bother?

March 1, 2000
By Scott Lewis

Lately I have been reading a lot about the MPAA and its fight against piracy. Its latest battle has been over the DeCSS program written by Jon Johansen in Norway. But this is just the most public battle of their fight currently.

What about Star Wars Episode I? I have heard that it is the most downloaded movie on the Internet. But it is not a DVD movie that has been copied using Johansen’s DeCSS program. In fact it never will be. Why? Simple, George Lucas has stated that he won’t release any of the Star Wars films on DVD until all 6 (Episodes I - VI) are released on DVD at the same time (more on this later).

So what version of Star Wars is available on the Internet? Do you watch Seinfeld? It is a "camcordered" version. Someone took a camcorder into a theater and filmed it. This is the version floating around the Internet. It takes up about 470 MB of space and the quality is quite poor. In fact, for such a special effects movie it is appalling.

So why pirate/download it? Simple, at this time (October 1999 - March 2000, except one week in December 99) it is the only way to see it. Even if you where willing to pay $100 to see The Phantom Menace, you couldn’t.

Lucas is not alone in this arena; he’s just the worst. The entire movie industry has been feeding us the theater, rental, pay-per-view, HBO, network TV, syndicated TV cycle for too long. And the length of time between a first run movie in a theater and VHS/DVD seems longer and longer in Internet Time.

Jack Valenti, President of the MPAA, has been the driving force behind all the movie industry’s battles with piracy, or feared threat of piracy, for a long time. The biggest was the MPAA’s lawsuit against Sony and its Betamax. The MPAA thought the VHS would turn every household into a piracy outlet and put the movie industry out of business.

We all know that Blockbuster has added billions of dollars to the movie business. Valenti waves this off as being nothing like the DeCSS case of copying DVD movies to people’s hard drives. He tries to make it seem like there is no cost in copying a DVD movie and uploading/downloading it across the Internet. Valenti states, "on the Internet... some obscure person sitting in a basement can throw up on the Internet a brand new motion picture, and with the click of a button have it go with the speed of light to 6 billion people around the world, instantaneously."

Jack is an idiot. Let’s take the basics for a second. Current hard drive prices are around $7 a gigabyte (don’t even tell me about that $99 deal you got for a 30GB drive from A DVD disc holds 4.7GB (one layer, one side). Even at only 4GB a movie (a low figure based on my own DVD collection) it would cost $28 of hard drive space to hold one movie.

As for "the speed of light," to download a true DVD copy (4GB in our example) movie would take at least 6 hours assuming you could maintain the maximum though put of a T-1, cable modem, or ADSL connection of 1.5Mbps without any problems. Since this is just about impossible, let’s assume you could maintain a 500 Kbps transfer rate. That equals at least 18 hours. This assumes the person uploading it "in a basement" has a connection that fast. ADSL and cable modems have far less upload speed. This means an upload (hence download) speed of 128Kbps (the upload limit SBC offers for its ADSL service). At that rate it would take over 70 hours. Don’t even make me tell you that it would take 169.8 hours to download 4GB over a 56K (FCC limited to 53K) modem. That’s over a week of constant downloading. The lines for Star Wars Episode I weren’t even that long. Hardly "instantaneously," Jack.

All these numbers assume not a single drop in connection or performance for the entire download. Something we all know (except Valenti) is impossible. And the $28 in hard drive space for the "downloader" as well as the "uploader." This is much more costly than buying the movie for $20, no less renting it.

For the near future it is very unlikely that true DVD quality movies will be roaming around the Internet. However, there are two other types of movies to download. These are ripped and compressed DVD copies, or the camcordered versions mentioned above. The latter has quality that isn’t worth wasting a CD-R blank on. Ripped DVD movies are being made without the use of DeCSS. So why doesn’t the movie industry go after the software makers that create DVD ripping software? Is it because they know that the quality of these ripped copies is too low to warrant the trouble? DeCSS copies the movie exactly, including its massive size.

Jack Valenti said, "if it was on the Net, 6 billion people would have access to it." I was not aware that everyone in the entire world has access to the Internet. AOL, the largest Internet access provider only as a measly 20+ million users.

I have heard people say that piracy is wrong no matter what, and what Johansen has done is completely illegal. Assuming for an instant that it was illegal, Johansen wrote the program so he could watch a DVD movie on his computer running Linux. If the movie industry wanted to stop this kind of "fair use" they could have hired a few programmers to write a Linux DVD Movie Player and give it away for free. This would be like Gillette’s classic approach to "give away the razor, charge for the blades" business approach.

If the movie industry created a Linux DVD player program and gave it away for free, that program would only be useful to play DVD movies that would have to be bought or rented. In other words... the movie industry could make money from Linux gurus instead of worrying about them stealing their intellectual property.

I have also heard the argument that the movie industry should be allowed to decide for itself how it will distribute movies, and people don’t have the right to tell the movie industry how it should do business. That is a load of crap. If we follow that logic we would all still be buying CDs in those big, unruly boxes they used to come in. So many people would take the CD/Jewel Case out of those packages and leave them at counters of music stores, eventually the music industry was forced (by law I believe) to stop distributing CDs in those boxes. This is best referred to by the old saying, "the customer is always right."

When asked about using the Internet as a means of access to movies Valenti says, "but how would you license it?" Duh, how about per download. I don’t see the concern here. Software companies have been complaining about piracy for years in a digital, perfect copying world. Yet many companies have secure ways to sell and download their software. Why can’t the movie industry do the same? Is it because Jack & Company really knows that it is currently impossible to reliably offer movies over the Internet to more than a very small niche market of Net-heads? Ordinary people using AOL (the largest number of Internet users in one [virtual] place) don’t have the ability to download a full length DVD quality movie, an won’t for years (even with the Time Warner merger).

If the movie industry is so determined to change the way the Internet works why don’t they just got out. Stop creating web sites to promote every movie you make. Stop selling VHS/DVD movies on web sites. See how long you stay in business without the Internet.

The way I see it the movie industry should be pushing (with investment money) the telcos and cable companies to offer even faster access at cheaper prices so they can offer movies for download. The major ISP’s could be the storage place for movies online. You download the movie from your ISP. This has a number of benefits. 1) The ISP has the incentive to get their customers faster access because they will get a piece of the "pie" in the sale of the movie. 2) The person downloading the movie only has to worry about his connection speed to his ISP rather than the agony of downloading over the open Internet and all its bottlenecks.

A possibility for the ISP would be to offer an optional service that allows a customer to buy the movie, and be granted unlimited viewing access. This means the viewer doesn’t have to use up their hard drive space to store the movie, but they can watch it anytime they want off the ISP’s server. This also means they won’t be using their upload speed to give the movie away since they never really have it in their possession.

Back to Star Wars. I remember hearing a rumor that the Special Edition versions of the "original" Star Wars movies were going to be released on DVD to coincide with the release of The Phantom Menace in theaters. I diligently searched DVD sites to place my advanced order. Alas, the rumor did not come true.

My brother-in-law saw Lucas say in an interview that he will release all the movies to DVD when they are all ready. That will be in 2006. What motive could he have for this? The only one I can see is that he wants people to buy them on VHS as they come out, and then buy them again when they are released on DVD. That is a really lousy way of ripping people off. The Star Wars franchise is the most commercialized series of movies I have ever seen. Yet that is not enough for Lucas; he has to milk it by having us buy his movies twice. Bite Me, George! If that is your position I will not buy any of the Star Wars movies… EVER! Besides, I won’t have to. By 2006 The Phantom Menace will have been seen so many times on rental, pay-per-view, HBO, Showtime, ABC, NBC, CBS, TNT, and Lifetime for Women, that there will be little reason to buy it.

This is why piracy in the movie industry exists. People want something and they are told they can’t have it. See what would happen to Microsoft if they made you buy the floppy version of Windows 95, and then made you pay for it again to get it on CD-ROM.

If the movie industry wants to fight piracy they should take all the money they pay lawyers and put that toward lowing the price of DVD movies. If it only cost $8-10 to buy a DVD movie piracy would be gone in no time.