My Robin Hood Theory

Downloaders as outlaws?

By, Alex O’Sullivan-Pierce

It worked for the Prince of Thieves, but is it ok to rob the rich and feed the poor if the rich are Hollywood movie studios and the (comparatively) poor are the millions of people downloading “free” content on the web?

This April, I was lucky enough to catch Al Perry, Vice President of Worldwide Content Protection and Outreach for Paramount Pictures, when he visited Brooklyn Law School to discuss online piracy, copyright and the future of the movie industry. See Professor Derek Bambauer’s post on Infolaw.com for a detailed recap. Perry is touring law schools and other institutions as a part of a campaign by the major movie studios to engage the public in a discourse about what Hollywood grimly terms “content theft.” In the wake of the fallen SOPA and PIPA legislation, the movie industry is feeling collectively queasy about its future ability to monetize its content and stand its ground against whirling tide of “free” online media.

Mr. Perry told us that in his travels he has encountered a pervasive “love your movies, hate your industry” sentiment. This conception has spawned a sort of Robin Hood trend where people feel guiltless, even justified, indulging in pirated content because everyone knows that movie studios have raked in millions upon millions every opening weekend for the past century while the powerless movie goer has been obliged to ante up for rising ticket prices and overpriced popcorn. We the people feel oppressed, but why? After all, it is not as if we have ever been forced to go to theaters or buy a DVD.

On the surface, people feel bullied by the movie industry simply because they have more money than we do, but I think it goes deeper than that. The real problem is that people do not see big studios as innovators or purveyors of fine goods, instead many are of the perception that big studios actually seek to stifle the advancement in their own trade. I’m pretty sure that if movie studios had it their way, online content would not exist at all and people would be forced to buy DVDs forever, preserving the hefty 50% profit margin enjoyed on such wears. This is the oppressive, self-serving, and underhanded approach of the movie industry that allows the Robin Hood narrative to persist.

Hollywood as Prince John?

Evidently, studios do not care about advancing their craft; they only care about maintaining a strangle hold on the business model that has yielded huge profits for them in the past. And now that this model is obsolete, they are appealing to the government to help hold their spot a top the entertainment industry food chain.

Studios could begin by evolving in the way they think about copyrights. Contrary to the propaganda disseminated by the MPAA “content theft” is hardly an accurate description of the way people share media over the internet. For instance, if I purchased a DVD, I could certainly lend it to my friend to watch. So what makes peer-to-peer file sharing so different, the fact that you do not know the other person? Obviously there ARE SOME important differences, but file sharing is not the same as stealing a car, just as it is not the same as lending your neighbor a DVD and characterizing the rights held by a creator of a movie as the equivalent of a deed to a Honda is just incorrect. Intellectual property rights are not absolute; they are a set of compromises which are carefully balanced between private and public interests. We want people to be able to monetize their creative work, but we also want to allow a reasonable amount of freedom for the public to interact with such material. The evolving scope of copyrights and definition of infringement must be a negotiation, but this is not possible with when the movie industry leads the charge with a term like “content theft” because it paints the debate in polarized black and white terms.

Not so long ago, much of the clout wielded by the movie industry was their power to distribute. The internet has diminished the importance of many traditional distribution channels yet, until recently, the movie industry has stubbornly refused to adapt their business model to the advancing technology to the detriment of their potential consumers. In clinging to the outdated notion of copyright, studios have may have even acted against their own interests by eliminating a source of free advertising by pursuing takedowns of movie trailers being streamed over “unauthorized” sites. See the Underground Multiplex for more on that. This ogreish, uncompromising approach is what makes studios into villains, and casts internet pirates as loveable bandits.

People will always love the movies, but they will also hate the industry if they continue to spurn customers by standing in the way of advancement. The love hate dynamic has not crumbled the movie industry yet, last time I checked Paramount was still well in the black, but tyrannizing your people is dangerous road to tread, just ask Prince John.

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About Alex OP

Blog Editor for Arther Law's Industry Insider 3L at Brooklyn Law School

2 responses to “My Robin Hood Theory”

  1. theundergroundmultiplex says :

    Thank you, Alex! It’s truly amazing how Hollywood studios don’t get it. When Louis C.K. recently decided to make a new stand-up performance available for a vastly discounted price, his sales topped $1 million in 48-72 hours. An exec at Paramount had the audacity to claim his effort was “not monetizing.” Kevin Smith took his film “Red State” on the road and made back 25% of his costs during the first year of self-distribution, which is a rare feat. Recording artist Amanda Palmer just topped $1 million for a Kickstarter effort on her first album and there are other Kickstarter successes as well for music and film efforts.

    The major studios are not geared for personal contacts with those who make or appear in Hollywood blockbuster films. Kevin Smith can make personal appearances in indie theaters with “Red State,” but try asking Joss Whedon or any of the stars of The Avengers to make personal appearances in dozens of theaters across the country to promote the film. Ask them if they would be willing to engage in extra entertainment tailor-made for each specific venue. It’ll never happen. They’ll laugh you off. These folks already get contracted to make dozens of TV interviews for the movies they appear in whether they like them or not. Most people don’t realize that the star smiling and answering
    basic questions about his/her new movie may be responding to the same questions for the fortieth time that day–literally. Many of those stars are not smiling on the inside.

    Hollywood has no mechanism in place to move away from that system, nor do they seem interested in changing what so far has been very profitable for them. They just simply hate the idea that independent movies can exist and make money without their interference. It’s as though Diamond Jim Brady, after consuming a 20-course meal, becomes furious because he can’t have that slice of pie the fellow at the next table is eating.

  2. Alex O'Sullivan-Pierce says :

    The Louis C.K. online sale is a great example of using of a content producer using technology for everyone’s benefit. Fair price, wide access, good product and guess what- Louie made a bunch of cash too. This reminds me of a story about Steve Jobs who clashed with less brilliant people more conservative at Apple when he wanted to push production of the iPhone when iPods were at the height of their popularity. The conservatives argued that one device would cannibalize the other where people would buy iPhones but would no longer buy iPods. They were worried about killing the Golden Goose. Jobs had the vision to look past this short sited approach and I think it is safe to say that Apple’s profits have not suffered one bit. If the movie industry had more courage to innovate and advance their own craft then they would be on the forefront of online media distribution. Instead we have iTunes.

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