As an indie filmmaker, I’ve become a reluctant witness to the damage done by online piracy and its negative effects on content creators throughout the world. The picture is not a pretty one, and it’s getting uglier by the day.
Last April, within 24 hours of the release of our film, “And Then Came Lola,” illegal downloads popped up online. By midsummer, one link had morphed into more than 25,000. Subtitled versions were available in more than a dozen languages. Multiply each link by hundreds — if not thousands — of downloads, and you’ll get an idea of the numbers involved. What’s most chilling is the fact that our low-budget indie film is a mere drop in the piracy bucket.
The same scenario is being played on a larger scale across the Internet, to the detriment of content creators everywhere. While not every illegal download equals a lost sale, it’s hard to compete with free.
This illicit, anonymous trafficking in stolen content takes many forms. Illegal downloads of your favorite film, music or e-books can be found on cyberlocker sites such as Megaupload.com or Hotfile.com. Other websites offer online streaming movies or peer-to-peer file sharing via torrents. On its face, file sharing seems like a benign, even friendly, activity. But at its core, today’s piracy by large commercial sites isn’t about altruism, it’s all about making money by stealing from people like me.
How do these websites cash in? With a little help from credit cards issued by the likes of Visa and MasterCard, some sell “premium” subscriptions to enable faster download speeds. Others earn income by placing advertising (supplied by Google AdSense and others) on pages offering pirated content.
For these pirate entrepreneurs, and companies that indirectly facilitate their operation, it’s a no-risk proposition. Steal content, post it on a website, drive traffic to the website and earn revenue. In this equation, the pirate website operators make money, credit card companies make money, ad providers make money and advertisers attract new customers. Who is left out? The artists who actually create the content.
Given this reality, what can be done to effectively stop, or at least slow, this illegal economy? Though not a panacea, a good first step would be passage of the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act that was recently introduced by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). The legislation would allow the Justice Department to “track and shut down” websites engaged in the sale or distribution of copyrighted content or counterfeit goods. In layman’s terms: It aims to put the squeeze on this burgeoning online black market for pirated goods.
Backlash to this proposed legislation has been both sharp and swift, with opponents characterizing such efforts as an attack on free speech. However, if someone opened a gallery and sold unauthorized prints of Ansel Adam’s photographs, would that be considered free speech? Of course not. Such a business would be shut down immediately. Why should similar operations on the Internet be immune? Why should creations that exist in digital form be exempt from legal protection? The “free speech” argument is a red herring. The real issue is theft, pure and simple.
Opponents of anti-piracy legislation direct additional scorn toward the Hollywood studios, long at the forefront of anti-piracy efforts. How is it, piracy advocates argue, that the public should feel sorry for companies that generate millions of dollars in profit? While the studios may provide piracy advocates with a convenient foil, it’s a shortsighted and ultimately disingenuous argument.
Think for a moment about who actually makes the movies you enjoy. Whether independent or studio produced, every film is the product of an intense and creative collaboration involving dozens, if not hundreds, of people. Next time you watch a movie, stick around as the credits roll — it takes a village to make a film.
Those who toil behind the scenes are some of piracy’s biggest losers: the makeup artists, set designers, electricians, writers, production assistants, animators, prop masters, caters and so on. These craftspeople depend on a healthy film production industry to support themselves and their families. Aren’t these jobs worth saving?
It’s clear that business models for film distribution will continue to evolve over the next few years and that creators across the spectrum will have to adapt. What’s equally clear is that the time has also come for our laws to adapt to this new reality.
Hopefully, those of us on opposite sides of the piracy debate can take a cue from Leahy and Hatch and find a way to cross the aisle to reach a consensus. The time has come for all of us who care about creative content to work together to find solutions that can ultimately benefit everyone — content creators and consumers alike.
Ellen Seidler is an independent filmmaker and director of “And Then Came Lola.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.