How much would you pay to see The Expendables, the awful Sylvester Stallone-starring carnival of testosterone that garnered critical opinion as diverse as “unnecessary”, “junk” and “not having the integrity to do anything of value”? The price of a cinema ticket? Maybe you’re weird, and you bought the full-price deluxe DVD. Let’s round this up, and say that the most you could ever expect to pay to see this over-hyped piece of trash would be around £20.
Now contrast that with the 23,322 Americans who have been ordered to pay a $2,000 settlement for downloading the film illegally.
Let’s not underplay it: movie piracy is huge, but it’s not going to go away. This lawsuit comes from the legally murky US Copyright Group, known for defending more low-budget fare in the past (their biggest suit to date was the Uwe Boll directed adaptation of Far Cry), and it’s the latest in a long line of lawsuits intended to scare filesharers. No-one ever mentions that of the thousands of defendants sued by USCG or its clones, no-one has ever appeared in court. When it comes to digital film piracy, there is next to no precedent in either the US or UK courts.
A similar company to USCG, the UK-based ACS Law, shut down this February after a string of controversies and one judge in particular who called their behaviour “mind-boggling”. Successful cases have been brought against music pirates, even if it’s just a handful. As scare tactics, however they still haven’t worked.
In the UK, it appeared for a while that things were going to change. Last year, Parliament passed The Digital Economy Act, which works on the basis of removing internet access for repeat offenders rather than using copyright infringement as a shady basis for generating extra revenue, but you won’t see its effects for at least another year because the government agreed on the principles a long time before they thought about how their ideas could actually be enforced. There’s also the fact that two ISPs (BT and TalkTalk) successfully managed to get a judicial review as to their own liability, its compatibility with EU law and a hefty chunk of privacy concerns. Things might get more complex in the future, but for now piracy seems to have an open channel in the UK.
We seem to have hit a catch-22 when it comes to the movie industry. Lagging sales have led to more and more hesitancy from abroad to distribute films in the UK, meaning that quite often movies that don’t even have a theatrical release over here are online in DVD-quality rips months or sometimes years before they appear in any legal format. The fantastic Edward Norton-starring Leaves of Grass (pictured) was leaked by one of the crew, even before it began its incredibly limited US run. There are currently a plethora of small-budget films circulating the American market that we should at least expect to see in independent cinemas in the UK. Yet it’s the increasing reality that these kinds of films simply vanish.
That might be the pirates’ fault to an extent, but it’s not the whole picture. Movies are surviving the digital age a lot better than most other entertainment industries. DVD sales might be down, but cinema ticket sales are up, much in the same way that live music has taken off again in recent years.
The hesitancy of distributors to spend money on bringing films to the UK is stifling, and while that might mean we see more homegrown brilliance (like the recent Attack the Block), it means that UK residents steal the films that don’t deserve to be stolen.
When we look at piracy, big-budget huge-grossing blockbusters like The Expendables shouldn’t get a say, considering that they’re proud of being commercial; that’s a bit like asking Lord Voldemort about the ethical ramifications of murder. It’s the smaller films – the ones that already don’t stand a chance – that we need to look out for.