Conventional wisdom holds that the growing world popularity of the BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing protocol since its inception in 2003, is the main culprit in the slumping U.S. movie box office. And that assumption, bolstered by the incessant harping from the movie studios about their struggle - a life or death struggle as they often put it - to survive in a post-BitTorrent world, would make a lot of sense… if it were true.
But not only does a recent study conducted by a couple of industrious scholars within Wellesley College's Department of Economics point to something else, it also debunks the myth that given the opportunity to pay for a movie or steal it, people prefer to steal it.
The study, released last month and titled Reel Piracy: The Effect of Online Film Piracy on International Box Office Sales, was conducted under the abstract that longer release windows to countries outside the U.S. have a much greater effect on international film piracy than the presence of a relatively easy means of illegally downloading movies. And they proved it. The study examined data after 2003 and found that the relationship between release lag and box office returns grows more negative following 2004 - after BitTorrent was founded.
Concluded the study, "Consumers in the U.S. who would choose between the box office and piracy, choose the box office, but that international consumers who would consider both options choose piracy due to a lack of legal availability.
In other words, people outside the U.S. who steal movies do so because they are surrounded by tantalizing internet buzz, movie discussions, and a virtual media barrage about films they can't legally watch… and they want to become involved. Ready access to illegal movies doesn't make people steal them. Making them wait to watch them does. Not such a big problem back in the days before the internet, but with growing web access and the saturation and proliferation of film-related web sites, people want to watch the movie to see what everyone is talking about… and they will, even if it means stealing it.
Though the lesson here is actually quite simple, and one that can easily be remedied, history tells us that the studios will continue to pour millions of dollars into the fight against online movie piracy instead of actually working to solve the problem. Eliminate the longer release windows to international countries and watch the incidence of international film piracy miraculously decrease. Sure, it won't completely disappear, but the data from this study once again show that given easy access at a fair price, people will pay to see movies (even at the theaters) rather than steal them. The power for the Hollywood film companies to put a serious dent in online movie piracy is right in their own grubby little fingers. But will they be able to see past their noses?
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