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Home > Film

The film industry vs. piracy: What's their beef?

"The whole issue of piracy and copyright in the digital age is a very, very large issue. If control isn't exercised in some form or another, it's going to be very hard for many people to stay in business..."

- George Lucas

22 August 2003

This week the UK Film Council warned that the film industry could be in trouble because video and DVD piracy rose by 83 per cent last year, and now almost one in three of the videos and DVDs sold in the UK are pirate copies.

And if you believe that, you probably also believed that Titanic was a well-scripted, cleverly-plotted piece of non-rubbish that never made you want to regurgitate your overpriced M&Ms all over the filmgoer sitting in front of you.

At one level, video and DVD piracy is simply wrong. If you wrote a book, gave a copy of your manuscript to a friend, then found they'd published it without your knowledge and were pocketing the proceeds, you could sue their socks off.

And by definition, video and DVD piracy does deprive the film industry of money. But how much is extremely hard to quantify, which makes the UK Film Councilís claim that the UK is losing £400m a year sound rather too specific. For example, there's no way of knowing whether someone who buys a dirt cheap pirate copy would have bought a legal version instead.

Video and DVD piracy is a little different to just pinching someone elseís work. Video/DVD piracy tends to concentrate on 'artworks' that are already highly commercially successful. When was the last time you walked down Tooting High Street and picked up a couple of pirated Peter Greenaway DVDs?

To adapt the analogy above, itís more like writing a dreadful but highly successful bestseller and becoming as rich as Jackie Collins, then discovering someoneís knocked off some cheap copies printed on toilet paper and is selling them on street corners.

It's one of those strange cases where something is indefensible in principle, but in practice itís just not terribly important, like a builder who does the odd bit of cash in hand work but otherwise always pays his taxes and makes a large contribution to the state.

Speaking of cash, one reason why most people have little sympathy for the film industry is very simple: DVD prices. Here are a few choice selections from HMVís website:

The Princess Diaries, £19.95
Black Knight, £17.99
Miss Congeniality, £19.95
Say It isn't So, £9.95

All these films are dross of the highest order. Yet they're all quite expensive. And in the case of Say It Isn't So (a comedy almost totally devoid of jokes, not to mention plot or comprehensibility), the viewer should really be paid by the film makers for sitting through this muck.

On this note, letís look at a DVD that really takes the piss: The Man With the Golden Gun, a film that's not only pretty mediocre, but which has been on TV more often than dust particles, and costs £19.95. Who but a small group of tragic individuals with some very rare mental disorder would want to see The Man With The Golden Gun more than the seven or eight times that they already have? Admittedly you get stacks of 'Special Features', but you also get Bambi and Thumper).

To be fair to the film industry and its outlets, piracy could become a big problem, especially if the quality of copies continues to improve. But despite piracy, mainstream films continue to generate record incomes year after year. Admittedly this could be due to shrewder marketing and the increasing prevalence of one-size-fits-all blockbusters designed to appeal to everyone from 12-year-olds to undiscerning adults, but it's exactly this trend that is killing off smaller budget films for grown-ups. Big film producers can't bleat about piracy stifling creativity when they're not making creative films.

And while the odd cult film like Withnail & I has no doubt generated a zillion home tapings among the Camberwell Carrot community, itís probably not the case with, say, the tiny British indie film industry as a whole. If you're anything like us, you probably don't spend your time swapping pirate copies of Mad Dogs and Englishmen or Beyond Bedlam.

The Motion Picture Association of America recently launched an ad campaign to prove that illegal copying hurts the 'little guy', ie. cinema staff, film crews, set builders etc. But how true is this? By the time a film has been pirated, the "little guys" have already been paid.

Of course the person who does suffer from video and DVD piracy is the viewer, if you happen to fall upon a truly dreadful pirate version thatís a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of someone sitting with a camcorder in a cinema. But thatís just a case of buyer beware.

The bottom line seems to be that the film industry has had a licence to print money courtesy of inflated video, DVD and cinema prices (not to mention paying £50 for a bag of M&Ms, a microscopic tub of Haagen Daaz and a medium Coke) and is now getting aerated about a relatively minor threat to its income. And if the film industry has anything to worry about, itís people eventually downloading films from the Internet (although this is some time off, and frankly a hassle that most people can't be bothered with).

Video and DVD piracy could, potentially, become very damaging to the film industry, or at least its profits, but there just isn't much evidence of it happening yet. So for the purveyors of frequently mediocre, invariably overpriced DVDs to start crying wolf at this early stage just reinforces every prejudice consumers had about their sheer avarice.

Anyone for a collectorís edition boxed set of James Belushi DVDs? It costs £189.95, but it DOES include the directorís cut of K-9.

Buy K-9 on DVD here!

(Only £18.99!)

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