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.