Many of the most-pirated movies aren’t available for legitimate online purchase

October 15, 2013

Online movie availability on October 15, 2013, as provided by CanIStreamIt. (Piracydata.org)

Why does movie piracy persist after years of efforts to stamp it out? A new website called PiracyData.org suggests a simple explanation: people pirate movies because they don't have the option of paying for a legitimate copy online.

Every week, the file-sharing news site TorrentFreak publishes a list of the 10 most pirated movies. PiracyData.org mashes this list up with data from CanIStreamIt, a search engine that helps consumers find legitimate sources for copyrighted films.

The results are striking. In last week's results, not a single film was available from streaming from services like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Only three of the top 10 films, The Lone Ranger, After Earth, and This is the End, were available for online rental. For example, several services offer After Earth for $4.99.

And just six of the top 10 movies (Pacific Rim, The Internship, The Lone Ranger, Monsters university, After Earth, and This Is the End) were available for online purchase. Monsters University, for example, can be purchased from iTunes or the Google Play store for $19.99. The only way to get the other four movies online was through illegal downloading.

Last week's results were not an anomaly. The PiracyData team has been collecting data for three weeks, and during that period, not a single highly pirated film has been available to stream. And many highly-pirated movies have not been available for rental or download.

Piracydata.org was created by two tech policy researchers at the Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank, and by Matt Sherman, a software engineer based in New York. The team's leader, Jerry Brito, says he got the idea for the site after a hearing in which major content holders criticized Google for failing to do enough to combat piracy. That criticism came despite the fact that Google has taken a number of steps to prevent illegal sharing of copyrighted works.

A year ago, Google began automatically demoting search results that are the target of numerous takedown requests by copyright holders. Yet despite that proactive approach, searches for Hollywood blockbusters frequently turn up links to pirate websites.

"The MPAA is complaining that Google leads people to infringing links," Brito argues. "But what's the alternative?" The movies that are available on file-sharing sites, he says, are "very rarely available for legal acquisition."

Unsurprisingly, MPAA spokesperson Kate Bedingfield disagrees. "Today there are more ways than ever to watch movies and TV shows legally online, and more are constantly being added," she said in an e-mailed statement. "If a particular film isn't available for stream or purchase at a given moment, however, it does not justify stealing it from the creators and makers who worked hard to make it."

Brito insists he's not trying to excuse piracy. But, he argues, "I don't understand how the industry is making a big show about Google not taking voluntary measures to help with piracy."

Hollywood, he says, could "change its business model to take their own voluntary measures to deal with piracy," by making movies more readily available through legal online channels. If it chooses not to do that, he believes, they have no business complaining that tech companies aren't doing enough to combat the problem.

But Bedingfield counters that films get heavily pirated even when they're made available in online formats. “The Walking Dead was pirated 500,000 times within 16 hours despite the fact that it is available to stream for free for the next 27 days on AMC’s website and distributed in 125 countries around the world the day after it aired," she says. "Our industry is working hard to bring content to audiences when they want it, where they want it, but content theft is a complex problem that requires comprehensive, voluntary solutions from all stakeholders involved."

Finally, Bedingfield points out that the Mercatus Center counts Google among its funders.

Correction: The original data supplied to us by PiracyData.org was inaccurate. It showed 1 movie available for rental and 4 available for purchase. In fact, at least 3 were available for rental and 6 were available for purchase. "Pacific Rim" is also now available for digital rental, though it's not clear if that was true on Monday. We regret the errors. We also added some additional comments from the MPAA's Kate Bedingfield to the end of the article.

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Brian Fung · October 15, 2013