by Lori Flekser
I’ve been travelling around the country talking to film school students in tertiary education institutions to shed light on the challenges of theatrical film distribution. I do this in my role as Executive Director of Creative Content Australia - a not-for-profit company committed to raising awareness about the impact of online piracy on the screen industries.
What's the bridge linking distribution to piracy? Well, piracy IS distribution. It's the release of films and TV shows online to a potential audience of billions. But that release happens without the permission of the copyright owners. And it happens with not one cent going back to the original creators or owners of the work. Piracy is a highly profitable enterprise that generates hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue annually. It's not just kids in a basement swapping files.
In an increasingly challenged cinema environment, revenue lost to piracy is increasingly significant.
UK-based research company MUSO has identified over 300 billion visits to piracy websites in 2017. CCA's annual research shows a slight decrease in teen pirates in Australia (23% in 2017 compared to 26% in 2016 claim to be active pirates). Australian pirates aged 18-64 are static at 21% over these two years.
Countering the myth that streaming services have killed piracy, global data shows that both legal and infringing services are growing year-on-year. However, with increasing fragmentation of content services, consumers who can't find what they are looking for on their paid service feel entitled to stream a pirated alternative. The growth of niche subscription services may exacerbate this.
Adding to concerns is the growth of set top box or streaming device piracy. Consumers can connect open-source media players to their television sets to stream a vast number of subscription channels using third-party applications. Thirty-one percent of Australians are watching screen content via a set top device, with 1 in 5 of these using infringing content apps.
The greatest positive strides in 2017 came in the form of court-sanctioned take-downs of over 60 websites found to be primarily engaged in facilitating access to copyright-infringing content. Research in late 2017 showed that the blocks resulted in a 25% reduction in piracy overall and a 53% reduction in use of the online pirate sites subject to a blocking order.
The research confirmed that assertions made by vocal opponents of site-blocking - who claimed site blocking would be ineffectual - were unfounded and incorrect. The reduction in piracy offers proof to all the naysayers who decried site-blocking that not only is it working well, but it hasn't broken the internet.
Site blocking is already being implemented for a number of law enforcement purposes including INETRPOL-sanctioned global blocks of child pornography sites, and sites promoting terrorism, racism, online gambling and so on.
And, as international public policy expert Hugh Stephens points out, "There is nothing special about the digital environment that suspends the laws of gravity when something is done online. If it is illegal in the offline world, it is illegal in the online world, and using online measures to respond to illegal online activity, it seems to this observer, is reasonable and proportionate."
To reinforce the connection between piracy and Australia's film and television industries , CCA 2018 'Say No to Piracy' consumer campaign celebrated home-grown creativity - reminding consumers that we have some of the best screen professionals in the world. Piracy jeopardises not only local jobs and livelihoods, but also the future of great Australian stories that promote our culture and way of life.
Moreover, the creative sector is a significant contributor to the Australian economy - the creation of Australian screen content injects $3 billion into the Australian economy annually, generating more than 25,000 jobs.
With site blocks "shutting the front door" to infringing online locations, the battle continues to have search engines close "the back door". Google does not actively block pirate sites, nor proxy sites that show work-arounds to reach blocked sites. Graham Burke, CCA's Chairman and Village Roadshow co-chief executive believes that Google is complicit and "facilitating crime". He wants the search giant to be proactive, rather than relying on copyright holders to go through the courts to block each and every pirate site.
The role of search engines is particularly pertinent in the light of CCA's March 2018 study of how search engines drive piracy. Seventy percent of Australians use search to find content and, although 44% were not looking for infringing content, there's evidence that new pirates are drawn into infringement when the top searches identify pirate sites. Autocomplete exacerbates piracy by steering users to previously unknown pirate sites.
So, when I talk to film students, I want them to understand their role in this highly complex and volatile creative landscape. I hope they will come to recognise what talented writer/director of the 'Say No to Piracy' campaign, Curtis Hill, discovered: "It was film school that opened my eyes to how many skilled people it takes to make screen content. I want to have a career making feature films and TV drama, but piracy is having a major impact on my ability to do that. It reduces investment in the creative industry which leads to fewer projects. That's less opportunities for people like me and less jobs for thousands of crew and cast."
Published originally in Inside Film and reprinted with permission