Movie-industry study: Unauthorized video sharing shrinks if viewers have legal options

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By Rob Pegoraro
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 6:10 PM

No, that's not the headline you'll see at the Motion Picture Association of America's site. The Washington-based lobby headlined its own press release (PDF) yesterday in starker terms:

NEW STUDY FINDS 23.8% OF GLOBAL INTERNET TRAFFIC INVOLVES THE ILLEGAL DISTRIBUTION OF COPYRIGHTED WORK

The study in question was commissioned by NBC Universal (though that company, as of Saturday a Comcast-controlled operation, makes no mention of it on its site) and conducted by Envisional, a research firm based in Cambridge, England. Envisional surveyed a variety of file-sharing sites and services, from BitTorrent to Usenet streams, and came up with some numbers that can't make anybody in Hollywood happy.

Envisional estimated, as the MPAA headline accurately states, that 23.8 percent of the world's Internet traffic consisted of copyrighted work shared without permission--most of that video.

A summary of Envisional's findings (PDF) posted by the MPAA adds more detail. The company found that in the United States, copyright infringement makes up 17.53 percent of Internet traffic, and it could spot almost no non-infringing material being shared via the popular BitTorrent protocol: "Excluding pornography, Envisional project that 99.24% of all material on bittorrent was copyright infringing."

But if you read Envisional's full, 56-page report (PDF), you may get a more nuanced picture.

First, consider the breakdown of infringing material by type. A chart on Page 13 and a table on Page 14 show that films were, by an overwhelming margin, the the most popular type of copyrighted file seen on BitTorrent. Pornography was less than a third as popular and TV shows were about a fifth as popular--with all other types of content adding up to a rounding error in comparison.

Movies also dominate such competing file-sharing mechanisms as "cyberlocker" sites, discussed on Page 18 of Envisional's report.

(That's not the case in Envisional's analysis of file-sharing programs such as Gnutella, but that's based only on searches, not downloads. For that matter, I have doubts about its suggestion that almost no non-infringing content exists on BitTorrent. ZDNet's Linux reporter Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols observed that many incremental releases of that open-source operating system would not show up on the BitTorrent site, PublicBT.com, surveyed by Envisional.)

Why would movies be such a popular illegitimate download? It doesn't take much time comparing the ease of finding a new song on iTunes with your odds of locating a new movie on Amazon or Netflix to realize that the commercial online availability of movies lags woefully behind that of music. Between the wait for a new film to appear online--and the self-defeating "release window" system that requires it to be taken offline on an arbitrary schedule--getting an honest movie rental or purchase over the Internet remains frustrating.

In other words, nobody should be surprised to see unauthorized movie downloads booming when the authorized kind remain so difficult to find. The studios won't satisfy demand, so alternate suppliers have stepped in to fill that void.

Then let's return to that gap between the volume of infringing material in the U.S. and around the world at large. As bad as the availability of legitimate movie streaming and downloads can be here, we have it better than everywhere else.

For example, in the more than five years since the first short films arrived on Apple's iTunes Store, the company has yet to bring movie rentals and downloads to more than a handful of countries in Europe (Britain, Germany, France and Ireland), as well as Canada, Mexico and Japan. Netflix streaming only arrived in Canada in September and has yet to surface anywhere else. And Amazon's video-on-demand service hasn't even gone beyond the United States. yet.

What do you think overseas viewers will do when they're told that their money is no good? Most will probably not be as patient as a friend who recently moved to South Korea and resolved to fiddle with "proxy servers" to spoof Netflix into thinking he hadn't left the States.

Just ask the director of Envisional's survey, David Price, about geography's effect on unauthorized downloading. I did, and this was his response:

I think the availability of legit content in the US may be one reason why infringing use is lower in the country than elsewhere worldwide: the US has Hulu, Netflix, Amazon VOD, Vudu, streaming content from the tv networks, etc. This level of availability just can't be found elsewhere. Further, the content in the greatest demand online is that which originates from the US -- television shows and films in particular -- which often take a while before they appear in other countries.

So if the movie industry wants to know how to stop people from watching its work without paying, the answer awaits between the lines of the report its own lobby is trumpeting: Get in the market, because the demand is there and people have shown they will pay. As Alec Baldwin's character once hectored a roomful of salesmen in the 1992 drama "Glengarry Glen Ross": "They're sitting out there waiting to give you their money. Are you gonna take it?"


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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