The Piracy Debate: More than Wooden Legs and Eye Patches
Austin-based directing team Julia Halperin and Jason Cortlund.
The Piracy Debate: More than Wooden Legs and Eye Patches
Radiohead's 2007 album In Rainbows was released on a 'pay-what-you-want' model.

The Piracy Debate: More than Wooden Legs and Eye Patches

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Jason Cortlund and Julia Halperin are a directing team based in Austin, Texas, who attended last month’s #ArtistServices Austin Workshop for a day of panels around tech and trends in financing, digital distribution, and more. Their debut feature Now, Forager premiered at IFF Rotterdam and New Directors/New Films. It received “Two Thumbs Up” from Roger Ebert and an IFP Gotham Award nomination for Breakthrough Director. They’re currently in development on their second feature, La Barracuda.

Update: Drafthouse CEO Tim League has officially banned Google Glass from the chain's theaters in an effort to combat clandestine recording.

The last panel of the Austin Workshop was co-titled “Cutthroat Ideas,” and I think we benefitted from the panelists embracing that spirit. Ruth Vitale (Executive Director of anti-piracy coalition CreativeFuture), Tim League (founder of Alamo Drafthouse theaters/Drafthouse Films distribution), and Straith Schreder (developer from BitTorrent) all seemed cordial enough at first glance. But when they started speaking, the discussion was spicy and got hotter. Maybe not ghost pepper hot, but somewhere above habanero for sure.

To try and recapture some of that magic, we’re going to trade off paraphrased arguments and rebuttals.

Jason Cortlund: Piracy is bad. Illegal content generates a quarter-billion dollars in ad revenue from legit companies each year (60 million unique visitors to Pirate Bay alone). 

CreativeFuture formed to stop illegal downloads and streams, because without it the entire industry will collapse. And it’s the fault of companies like BitTorrent for unleashing this hellhound technology on innocent content creators. Piracy helps terrorists, drug lords, and Russian gangsters. Just say no!

Julia Halperin: “I just want to shake some sense into you kids”!

Drafthouse Films’ distribution of The Act Of Killing included a BitTorrent bonus content bundle behind an email gate. This media has been downloaded 3.5 million times – providing access to videos, photos, interviews, and essays including a discussion of how the film has been received in Indonesia. The gate stays with the content, so the more often it’s shared, the more valuable it actually becomes.  

Piracy isn’t going away, so this is the model we need to consider – using the reality of how content is shared on the internet to increase audience engagement and, eventually, revenue streams for creators.

Cortlund: No! You can’t stop pirates by strapping on a wooden leg and an eye patch (I’m looking at you, Tim League). BitTorrent has done nothing to combat piracy. Producers used to raise 8% of their presales from Spain; today it’s 0%. That’s because an astounding 80% of all Spanish content consumption today comes from piracy. We have to change the culture and educate our children that consuming illegal downloads of film and TV will destroy our ability to create future content. 

Sure, it’s frustrating when you hear about some cool movie that just premiered at a festival that won’t get a theatrical or digital release for months. Sure, it’s tempting when, with a couple clicks, you can instantly watch the same film for free from a site like Popcorn Time (“The Netflix of Piracy” based in Argentina). But you don’t just kick in the doors of Target and take anything you want do you? DO YOU?! 

Halperin: Well, I did steal a pack of gum when I was seven, so maybe I am an ace criminal mastermind. Who knew?

The classic example of rethinking the strategy is Radiohead’s In Rainbows. The album was bought 3 million times, and letting fans choose what to pay netted the band a whole lot more than they made when they’d been signed to a record label. Straith made the point differently – that when you give people a meaningful choice, they will support artists. And in fact, the Act Of Killing BitTorrent blog page includes links to buy the entire film via iTunes, physical media, or instant download.

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Okay, enough roleplaying. Like many folks in the audience, we’re sympathetic to controlling unauthorized content because our first feature was pirated during our theatrical and digital releases. Maybe even more than lost revenue, having an unidentifiable audience can make it difficult for up-and-comers to launch future projects. 

But what we took away from this panel is that maybe piracy is a bull you have to ride toward a solution – you just can’t wrestle it to a stop. Watch clips from the #ArtistServices Austin Workshop below.