Evidence-based copyright: UK online movie marketplace is expensive, broken, patchy

My latest Guardian column is "Movie fans turn to piracy when the online cupboard is bare," a report on the Open Rights Group's study of the lawful options for people who want to watch great British movies online. The UK government and courts keep ratcheting up Internet censorship proposals because they say that there are so many lawful marketplaces that there's no excuse for "piracy." But ORG's research shows that large swathes of critical material isn't available for sale. And as we saw when major rightsholders pulled out of Hulu and iTunes before, the availability of their material on BitTorrent spiked -- if you don't offer lawful channels, you drive customers to unlawful markets.

Here's what ORG found: though close to 100% of their sample were available as DVDs, more than half of the top 50 UK films of all time were not available as downloads. The numbers are only slightly better for Bafta winners: just 58% of Bafta best film winners since 1960 can be bought or rented as digital downloads (the bulk of these are through iTunes – take away the iTunes marketplace, which isn't available unless you use Mac or Windows, and only 27% of the Bafta winners can be had legally).

And while recent blockbusters fare better, it's still a patchwork, requiring the public to open accounts with several services to access the whole catalogue (which still has many important omissions).

But even in those marketplaces, movies are a bad deal – movie prices are about 30% to 50% higher when downloaded over the internet versus buying the same movies on DVDs. Some entertainment industry insiders argue that DVDs, boxes and so forth add negligible expense to their bottom line, but it's hard to see how movie could cost less on physical DVDs than as ethereal bits, unless the explanation is price-gouging. To add insult to injury, the high-priced online versions are often sold at lower resolutions than the same movies on cheap DVDs.

Movie fans turn to piracy when the online cupboard is bare


  1. An excellent article, but it leaves out one other major reason for “piracy,” and that’s the quality of streaming video.

    If I want to watch, say, the Daily Show or The Office, I can of course watch them on television, through the cable that I pay for. If I want them on-demand, though, the legal options are to either pay again for a download through iTunes, or stream them online.

    Hulu and ComedyCentral, just to give an example, both have video players of their own that are inferior to either downloaded files or a progressive download system like YouTube. 
    Anything less than a perfect internet connection will result in dropped resolution or frame rates that can get so low as to be unwatchable. 
    The players are plagued with other technical problems, such as freezing the image so that a page refresh is required, which generally loses your place, kicking you back to a 90-second unskippable commercial.

    In theory, you can get movies and television shows through streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, etc. In reality, the only way to be 100% sure you’ll see your video in the same quality you’d get from broadcast or DVD is to download an actual video file.

  2. Another point related to the bad value you get with legal downloads is related to subtitles (closed captioning). As of last time I checked (more than a year ago) only a tiny tiny percentage of movies on iTunes feature subtitles and there is no way to add them later. Thus, if I wanted or needed subtitles it is far easier to torrent the movie and then download subtitles from another source.

    This relates to jayson’s point above, in that what you get with legal downloads is inferior to either pirate downloads or DVDs/Blurays.

  3. This research appears to dovetail rather nicely with my opinion that for a rights holder to retain copyright they need to make the work available for the general public at a reasonable cost, otherwise the work lapses in to public domain.

    I have no problem with the concept of copyright per se, I full accept that creators have a legitimate right to be paid for their work. However, it is a bit rich of publishers to trot out this argument and then to pursue pirates who couldn’t pay for that work even if they wanted to.

    My model, in the rough details works something like this. In order to retain copyright the publisher has to make the work available for purchase in a standardised format, and the work has to be made available for an extended period of time. This is to prevent publishers expoiting loopholes such as making a work available only on Betamax tapes, or only on sale for 24 hours per year. If the work has not been available to purchase for an extended period of time, say two or three years, then the argument about protecting income is null and void, there is no income to protect, and thus the work lapses in to the public domain.

    This ensures that customers have legitimate access to copyrighted works, publishers have an incentive to ensure that their works are available to customers, and by forcing publishers to make works available for purchase, it should hopefully increase the royalties paid to the artists involved.

    1. “I have no problem with the concept of copyright per se, I full accept that creators have a legitimate right to be paid for their work.”

      Copyright is not about money but is about control, rendering the rest of your argument moot. I’m on your side, however, the law would have to be extensively changed.

  4. BTW, the lack of evidence is not surprising as IP rights is the next step on from financial “services” like what one find in the City (old London core and the heart of the UK finance market). Strong laws regarding IP is required for the “knowledge economy” to function, as it creates artificial scarcity and rentier opportunities.

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