I went to a workshop on copyright the other night. It was extremely informative, but even the lawyer giving the lecture acknowledged that something major needed to be done to address the current situation of massive pirated downloads. Having worked as counsel for Tower Records, she represented them in that famous lawsuit against Napster because Napster had been dumb enough to specify in their business plan, "We're going to put companies like Tower Records out of business." Well, Napster went under, but then so did Tower Records. Ironically, Napster was reincarnated under a subscription-based model.
One attendee mentioned The Pirate Bay, which is an anti-copyright organization run out of Stockholm, Sweden. The Pirate Bay hosts a server indexing all BitTorrent files currently available, which means that if you go to their web site, you can find an "index" link to any film, movie, or song they have. When you use BitTorrent on that index link, it finds all the people who have a small fraction of that song on their computers and assembles all those parts into a complete file for you to watch or listen to. This is called, "hyperdistribution". As an American, by using BitTorrent, you have almost certainly infringed the copyright of the artists and their producers... but that doesn't seem to stop anyone from doing it. The Pirate Bay has gotten a lot of heat from the MPAA and record companies, and their offices were even raided by Swedish police in 2006. After that raid, however, The Pirate Bay was up and running again only three days later.
A few months ago, I discovered a site that goes a step farther—Watch-Movies.net. You don't even need BitTorrent to use this site. All you do is go to their site, type in the movie you want to see, and find the file that works the best for you. Invariably, these files are made from illegal camcorders in movie theatres, so you can see films still in general release. The quality is not always high, but if you're willing to sacrifice quality, then you can see practically any movie you want, for free, as long as you have access to the internet. Even though watch-movies.net stopped working quite suddenly (due to someone complaining, no doubt),
Watch-movies-links.net Watch-Movies-online.tv Watchmovieslinksonline.com was started up not long thereafter.
A Whois lookup on Watch-movies-links.net returned this:
Name: Private Protection Co.LTD
Organization: Private Protection Co.LTD.
Address: NO.1111 Chaoyang Road, Beijing
Postal Code: 100000
Name: Private Protection Co.LTD. Zhuhai Branch
Organization: Private Protection Co.LTD.
Address: NO.1 Meihua Road
Postal Code: 519000
Address: 6B XIHAI Building, No.221 Renmin E Road, Xiangzhou District,
Postal Code: 519000
As expected, Watch-Movies-Links.net is based in China, one of the largest violators of copyright. In doing research for my movie business plan, I learned China permits only 20 foreign movies to be shown annually in their country. If the tables were turned, and the best movies were always made in China, and the American government said I could only see 20 foreign movies per year—of which only a fraction were Chinese—I'm sure that I, too, would be a pirate without any ethical reservations. Since China is still under the yolk of communism, an ideology which divorces the individual from private property, I'm unsurprised when I hear Chinese citizens (proudly) call their country, "The nation of fake."
The ability for companies to brazenly violate copyright reminds me of the Hydra from Ancient Greek mythology. Hercules' Second Labor was to kill the Hydra, but "upon cutting off each of its heads, he found two grew back, an expression of the hopelessness of such a struggle". In this case, the MPAA, music companies, and the world's police are Hercules, and the Hydra is both the Pirates and the consumers who use BitTorrent. Try as they might, authorities can't seem to kill hyperdistribution. Shut down Napster? Here's BitTorrent. Shut down The Pirate Bay? They're up three days later. Shut down Watch-Movies.net? They switch domains. Sue consumers? You get a consumer backlash.
Why does piracy continue to flourish despite the continued assault from authorities? Because piracy at its core isn't a legal or technical matter, and thus cannot be solved with legal or technical tools. Piracy is in its essence a social problem only catalyzed by an unenforceable (and thus unrealistic) legal code and an astonishingly efficient delivery system. Rampant piracy is really just a symptom of users who want to consume content, and who aren't particularly interested in the hassle of paying for it. Sure, if it's easier to find content and pay for it than to download it over BitTorrent, they'll pay (thus the success of iTunes). But here's the bitter pill nobody wants to swallow: if a user goes out of their way to watch a pirated copy, they probably weren't a paying customer to begin with. Far from being a curse, users who watch pirated shows and movies and listen to pirated songs possess one unique benefit—a user who watches or listens to a pirated copy might like it enough to buy it on CD or DVD and/or recommend it to others... which is impossible if they never even watched or listened to it.
Sites like Hulu.com and ABC.com with its own media viewer show how the entertainment industry is evolving to come to viewers. Instead of not showing content online and "forcing" viewers into downloading episodes illegally, they're creating user-friendly parameters to make it easier for people to get the content they want, whenever they want it. The theory goes something like, if they're going to dally about with a mistress, at least we want to control who and where that mistress is... because we can make money off of that.
Lawrence Lessig makes an excellent point about copyright. The way the law is currently set up makes it too hard for providers to let users share, remix or use content. In an internet digital culture where sharing is the norm, copyright law is so restrictive that it's now stifling creativity. That's why I've become a fan of the Lessig's Creative Commons License.
My friend Nik said it best when talking about the pervasiveness of spam: "As long as you have a backwater country that doesn't crack down on spammers, you're always going to have spam. The only way to really fight spam is to manage it." Maybe one day, every country in the world will indeed have a police authority able and willing to protect the rights of every content producer around the world. I fear, though, that such a day will be long after my children have already grown up... and during that time, our culture will have since become accustomed to violating copyright as the norm.