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Posted in Books, Living by Rrishi on 14 May 2009

Fighting film piracy, with studies and statistics

Treverton et al, Film Piracy...Film Piracy, Organized Crime, and Terrorism
Gregory F Treverton, Carl Matthies, Karla J Cunningham, Jeremiah Goulka, Greg Ridgeway, Anny Wong
RAND Corporation
xviii + 162

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Entertainment media companies should have put a stop to hardware development 30 years ago, once they had the LP and videocassette. It’s too late now — CDs, DVDs, mp3s, memory sticks, Blu-ray, broadband and file-sharing have totally democratised data dispersal. Content has escaped the container, once and for all.

But content is all these companies have to sell. So they have done their best to protect it, to stuff the genie back in the IPR bottle, by raising legal barriers against unlicensed transmission — clearly an instance of law opposed to nature. It’s in the nature of consumers and technology to choose the easiest and cheapest way.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has been at the forefront of the fight to contain piracy — a fight not for the minds of consumers (that territory was ceded far too early) but for the ear of government, in an effort to get the state’s long arm to do what corporations and industry associations could not.

This study is one salvo in that global battle for the attention of lawmakers. Commissioned and paid for by the MPAA, it was conducted by the RAND Corporation, a California-based non-profit think tank. (RAND is also known for its security and military studies for the Pentagon.) The title, admirably, says it all: the book is indeed about film piracy, organised crime and terrorism; and its strengths and weaknesses are implicit in that title.

The authors open with a summary of their method and argument, go on to define their terms, including the three in the title, then explain why counterfeiting in general and film piracy in particular happen, then review examples from around the world (but not India) of criminal organisations which also pirate films, then briefly describe examples where there are known links between terrorists and film pirates (Dawood Ibrahim figures here; the full case studies are on a CD sold with the book), wind down with a look at the “protected spaces” in which criminals and pirates flourish because of government connivance or helplessness, and conclude with an agenda for strict international enforcement.

Such transparent design, and the pleasing clarity with which the book is presented, make some of its flaws obvious. In the first few lines is an admission that the premise of the study is limited: “Although there is less evidence of involvement by terrorists, piracy is high in payoff and low in risk for both groups [the other is criminal organisations], often taking place under the radar of law enforcement.” Which suggests that if law enforcement really wants to track criminal activity, perhaps all the way back to terrorists, it had better start with something like the illegal guns trade or drugs, rather than DVD pirates.

Then there is the issue of definitions. For one, counterfeiting is not the same as piracy. Counterfeiting includes the mass faking of all sorts of consumer goods, including clothes, electronics, handbags, medicines, etc. Strictly speaking, piracy is the theft of intellectual property — music, films, TV shows, software, video games — either by downloading or by making illegal hard copies. But in this book the terms are used interchangeably, the effect of which is to hugely, and misleadingly, enhance the scope of film piracy.

Second, the authors speak of organised crime and terrorists as belonging at opposite ends of the same continuum, where the connecting factor is money. Surely they are not wrong, at least in the case of the longer-running militant/terrorist movements (more definition creep) — but even if film piracy is low-risk and lucrative, it forms only a small part of the activities and income of such organisations.

The most convincing (and interesting) case study is that of the ungovernable Tri-Border Area (TBA) at the riverine junction of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. From the Paraguayan city of Ciudad del Este in the TBA, which has “one of the world’s largest black markets”, an immigrant businessman named Assad Ahmad Barakat was found to have funnelled millions of dollars earned from DVD piracy to Hezbollah.

Around the time this book became available, Ron Somers of the US-India Business Council (USIBC) was telling local papers that India’s entertainment and media industry loses 820,000 jobs and $4 billion annually to piracy. These figures, improbable as they are, went unquestioned. It turns out they come from an Ernst & Young study paid for by USIBC under its Hollywood-Bollywood Initiative. Looking at the original E&Y study, it’s clear that the figures rest on a very wobbly pile of assumptions. Yet the figures are retailed without disclaimer. There’s much more in this “funny figures” vein, worldwide.

Those figures, and this book, are part of the media companies’ sustained scare campaign against IPR loss. Good luck to them, but it has to be said: unless they win over their consumers first, they can’t win this war.

(Here’s RAND’s page for this report.)

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