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Internet crime and the inevitable movie revolution

If the explosion in Internet piracy is hurting Hollywood so much, why is the US box office healthier than ever?


I was teaching a class on Isaac Asimov recently and wanted to show a clip from the movie, I, Robot. It's not out on DVD yet. But a helpful student, whom I'll call Jonas (because that isn't his name), offered me a copy, pirated from the Internet.

The practice is widespread on American campuses. The actual downloading is both easy and difficult. Easy because it just means going to a peer-to-peer Web site, such as www.suprnova.org, and using its "bit torrent'' program. Last time I looked there were 10 versions of I, Robot, between 700 and 5,000 megabytes, depending on quality.

Someone, somewhere, has converted them into a format that can be run through a laptop to a TV monitor. Easy peasy.

The difficult part is that you'll need a high-speed connection. Even so, it will take an hour or so for a low-grade "theater rip" (i.e., a copy taken clandestinely in an auditorium) and twice as long for a copy lifted from a "screening version" of the film (pre-released for review, or to privileged insiders).

The site carries a prim war-ning: "You may not use this service to obtain or distribute software or any other copyrighted material that you do not have the right to. Any violators must leave this site immediately. This site is meant for educational purposes only." I can't see much educational purpose in a download of I Piss on Your Corpse, I Spit on Your Grave (a gore-flick on P2P offer from "Sickboy"). But some spoilsports might say the same of I, Robot.

Student consciences are clear. "They can afford it" is a common justification. Why worry about expropriating a few dollars from an industry that gives Michael Ovitz a US$140 million payoff? The Robin Hood defense has, of course, never gone down well with the courts.

More persuasive is the "time is money" line. Students, Jonas argues, apply a calculus. A DVD costs US$22 to buy and US$4 to rent. But renting means two return trips which eat into out-of-class time. If you are paying, as many undergraduates do, US$30K a year for your education, you budget hours as carefully as dollars.

American students (unlike most adults) inhabit an environment that is continuously online. Downloading means simply hitting the keyboard then going off to do something useful. Like homework.

A frequently heard justification is that downloading permits sampling before buying. It's a kind of test drive. It doesn't threaten the store-bought prod-uct: It advertises the "raw'' movie to the discriminating consumer.

The most sophisticated line of defense is that campus piracy drives technological progress. "If it hadn't been for Napster," students ask, "do you think we'd have iPod, or WalMart selling CDs for US$10?"

Jonas argues that far from destroying the film industry, movie downloading has made it raise its game, exploit its visual advantages, and lower its prices.

There are multiplex, mam-moth-screen, stadium-seating cinemas going up in every city center and mall. Box-office is at record levels. Commercially legitimate DVDs come packaged with a whole range of peripherals: Deleted scenes, interviews, background stuff. Blockbuster booms, as do myriad specialist outlets.

Historically, cinema has always been propelled by outlawry. The reason Hollywood is where it is, rather than in New York, is because out in the far west, pioneer movie-makers were beyond the reach of Thomas Edison and his strangling motion-picture camera patents.

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