Commentary: Not talking about film piracy doesn't make it any less a problem

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"I really can't believe The Hollywood Reporter is doing this," began the Twitter post from headgeek666. It was Harry Knowles, grand pooh-bah of fanboy repository Ain't It Cool News. He wasn't a big fan of an item on our THR, Esq. legal blog listing the 10 films that had been swapped most last week using the illegal file-transfer technology BitTorrent.

"Can you believe the trades are covering (the) most downloaded pirated releases?" Knowles asked. "Isn't that legitimizing the illegal industry?"

Well, no.

Without help from THR or any other global media, film piracy has long since moved from the shadows to the mainstream. If you work in Hollywood and have not Googled "torrent" and "movies," stop reading this and do it now.

As theatrical boxoffice soared during the past decade, it was easy to dismiss as alarmist propaganda those MPAA studies suggesting piracy could force Hollywood to join the music biz at the morgue. Surfing the hundreds of torrent sites, however, those dire predictions don't seem so far-fetched. Free movies are nearly as easy to access as film-geek blogs, and DVD sales, long the industry's profit engine, sank 6.3% last year, according to the Digital Entertainment Group trade group. Worse, a January report from analysts at Sanford Bernstein estimates that U.S. home entertainment spending will fall 7% this year, 6% in 2010 and another 7% in 2011.

The economy certainly is playing a role in those dips, but few can doubt that the proliferation of file-sharing sites and the growing adoption of high-speed broadband are taking a major bite out of the industry's bottom line. The Pirate Bay, one of the bigger torrent sites, is No. 76 on the list of most visited Web sites in the U.S., according to Alexa.com, and it exists for no other reason than to facilitate theft. It's no coincidence that the most-downloaded movies on TPB and such other sites as isoHunt and FlikFlux tend to be new DVD releases.

Home video isn't alone in its increased vulnerability, of course. A week after appearing online March 30, the leaked work print of Fox's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" had been downloaded more than 1 million times. That's a huge group of consumers who already have seen one of the summer's most anticipated films. Some will watch it again in theaters. Many won't.

Knowles, who famously posts early reviews from test-screening "spies" who often violate studio nondisclosure agreements, decided not to run reactions to the "Wolverine" work print, in part because he didn't want to condone illegal behavior.

But if piracy is such a major challenge facing the industry, why shouldn't The Reporter and others track exactly what's going on under our collective noses? Shouldn't there be more, not less, media coverage of the issue?

"An argument could be made that such a list would raise awareness of the problem," Knowles admitted when we exchanged e-mails on the subject. "But frankly, the only awareness that helps is within the industry alone, and they are already tracking such things. Anything else is advertisement for the problem."

I'm not so sure. The major studio heads' well-publicized jaunt to Washington on Tuesday wasn't just to pass out MPAA studies touting the benefits of Hollywood production jobs on the U.S. economy. It also was to press upon lawmakers and their constituents the severity of the piracy problem and to lobby for more industry-friendly laws. Illuminating how widespread the problem is and exactly which movies are being stolen can only help in that regard.

On Tuesday, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke was quick to talk up President Obama's commitment to anti-piracy, but it's unclear what support the industry will get from the president and the new Congress. Statutory copyright-infringement penalties that actually cause downloaders to think twice? Greater support in going after hubs like Pirate Bay? That site was dealt a major setback last week when a Swedish court gave four of its founders one-year prison sentences for facilitating massive infringement and awarded $3.6 million in damages to studios including Fox and Warner Bros., which helped in the prosecution.

The site's founders promptly mocked the verdict, calling it "bizarre" and "stupid." So the Whac-a-Mole continues, with studios having to wage war with limited legal weaponry against an increasingly brazen army of pirates.

Not covering a war doesn't make it any less brutal. The piracy problem is one the media -- and the industry -- shouldn't let fester in the dark.
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