Piracy: Is It Going to Get A Lot Worse Before It Gets Better?

In the Hutong

In a widely reported story released last week the Motion Picture Association of America (MPA) has finally released the data from an extensive third-party study it commissioned two years ago on piracy. Apparently, the moguls on the MPAA board held back the study – seems they weren’t too hot on what it had to say.

Feeding us the Appetizers…

The summary of the data, available here from the MPA, points to some interesting facts.

• One surprise was that leading the rogues gallery of countries in total piracy – and in piracy of MPA members (the big studios) was none other than the Good Ol’ USA, a fact that was partially obscured by the way the data was presented. Indeed, the U.S. accounts for nearly $2.6 billion in losses to studios due to piracy.

• Another surprising fact was that the MPA membership – again, the largest studios – lose more in the U.S., Mexico, Britain, France, and Russia each year than they lose in China. Interesting that these issues are not as publicly addressed with Messers. Fox, Blair, Chirac, and Putin as they are with Mr. Hu. But let’s leave that for a bit.

• China allegedly does far more damage to its own industry (and, presumably, independent filmmakers) than it does to the MPA, causing an estimated $2.1 billion in loses to non-MPA member companies and its own local industry.

…but holding back the meal

All of these numbers are interesting little factoids, but before a case can be made to advocate specific policies to address the implied problems, we need to know more. To date, however, the MPA has only released 4 pages of charts and tables and 3 pages explaining MPA people do with their work days, with no promise of when – or if – more is to come. What the MPA has produced, frankly, poses more questions than it answers.

For example, how is piracy is conducted in China versus how it is conducted in the U.S. and some of these other countries? Is downloading a substitute for bootlegging, or does it actually increase the level of piracy in a given country/market?

How was the data collected? Is it possible that developed countries, with superior statistical systems and a different cultural approach to research, are giving better data? Could we be underestimating – or overestimating – piracy in some countries?

Where are some of the trends? All we see in the data presented are snapshots – we need to see which problems are getting worse, and which are getting better (i.e., downloading getting worse, bootlegging getting better.)

What are some of the “best practices?” What is working? What isn’t?

If the MPA is genuinely interested in serving the its members, the industry, and the public at large, we all need an opportunity to parse some of this data, allowing the information to stand on its own in the face of public scrutiny, and indeed to allow the report to make an independent case for change.

Don’t Make This “Hollywood vs. The World,” Because Hollywood Cannot Win That Battle

Being selective and slow with the release of information like this damages the credibility of the report, the MPA, and its membership. For a problem of this size and importance both to the industry and to Sino-U.S. relations, if the MPA expects to continue to play a role in the process, nothing short of public honesty is acceptable. Otherwise, the studios and their captive association lose legitimacy as honest brokers in this process.

At that point, the MPA becomes nothing more than the self-interested voice of a handful of large corporations, a public-relations dinosaur that will be ignored by all sides. That would be a great shame, because involving all of its constituencies in the effort to combat piracy presents the MPA with an opportunity to demonstrate that what is good for Hollywood is indeed good for the world.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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