Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Mike D'Angelo
March 30, 2012 12:41 PM
63 Comments
  • |

Critic's Notebook: Is It Wrong to Download Pirated Movies? Not Quite, Says One Critic.

Remember back in the '80s, when people used to engage in recreational drug use? Just Say No, Nancy Reagan told us, and a collective lightbulb clicked on over America, ending the drug war forever.

Over in the U.K., the fight against online piracy now hopes to achieve similar results with a campaign that amounts to Knock It Off, as British filmgoers will be subjected for the next few weeks to a special "Battleship" trailer listing the various reasons why it's well worth paying to see a board-game adaptation on the big screen.

That's the face of piracy for most people: overprivileged computer nerds downloading a copy of a movie that's playing at the multiplex just a few minutes away from their house. Skinflints. Freeloaders. Lebowskis.

There's another, much less publicized side of pirating movies, however—one that isn't quite so black-and-white, though it's impossible to convince certain parties of the difference. About a month ago, I wrote a blog post explaining why I sometimes download Blu-ray rips of old movies. Brick-and-mortar video stores, to the meager extent that they still exist, rarely carry new high-def versions of classic titles like "Belle de Jour" and "Last Tango in Paris," and increasingly, neither do Netflix or Blockbuster-By-Mail, who seem to have determined that there's little demand for them. Often, there's simply no legitimate means of renting the highest-quality home-video release of the most important and celebrated movies ever made. But, hey, they have plenty of copies of "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked," so just add that to your queue instead.

Response to my blog post about this issue ran about 80% thoughtful and measured, 20% inane and heated. (I was also challenged by multiple folks on Twitter, even though that's not an ideal forum for lengthy debate.) Here are the most common objections that were lodged, none of which I find terribly persuasive.

"Would you steal a car for a day and then return it? Is that okay, smart guy? Huh?"

Actually, I might, if there were suddenly no car-rental options in existence, and if "stealing" the car merely involved touching it to create an exact duplicate, leaving the original intact. (Example swiped from a stand-up routine by Mindy Kaling. But she can still use it!) Comparisons to traditional notions of theft are silly. We consider those wrong because they do obvious, quantifiable harm. If I download a film that I had no intention of buying, or that I do in fact buy after I've seen it and decide it's worth owning, nobody has been deprived of anything. There isn't even any lost revenue, since (a) I can't rent the films anyway (that's why I'm pirating them), and (b) I still pay monthly membership fees to Netflix or whoever (for the titles they do rent), which is constant regardless of whether they acquire Buster Keaton's "Seven Chances" on Blu.

"Why don't you just buy everything you want to watch and then resell it on eBay?"

This solution to the problem was actually suggested to me with a straight face by someone from Masters of Cinema, the U.K. equivalent of the Criterion collection. If I rented one film per month, I might be willing to take the financial hit (used Blu-rays rarely sell for even half what you paid for them) and go to the extra trouble. But for a serious film buff, that's just laughable. Instead of paying $3 per rental, which was on the high end in the Blockbuster era, you'd be paying at least $10, and probably much more. I'd refuse to do that on principle even if I weren't subsisting hand-to-mouth right now, which I am.

"Even if you're not doing any harm per se, isn't participating in a harmful system morally questionable?"

Piracy does unquestionably cost the studios some money, though studies suggest that they tend to exaggerate the damage. Should I take some of the responsibility for the kids who'll download "Battleship"? That's like saying that people who have a glass of wine at dinner should feel guilty about the victim of a drunk driver thousands of miles away. Granted, the analogy is imperfect—technically, downloading any film is illegal, whereas alcohol consumption is not—but just extend it to the Prohibition era, if you like. If we can't agree that folks who quietly flouted that law in private (or who smoke weed at home today, for that matter) weren't (aren't) evil-enabling scumbags, then there's just no common ground here.

You might also like:

63 Comments

  • Jaime | April 5, 2012 10:35 PMReply

    This doesn't address the piracy question directly - I don't really care about the issue, one way or another - but you might consider looking over the calendar of upcoming Blu-ray releases, and asking for review copies of those that interest you. You seem to review every film you see these days (and yes, I'd call those medium-large capsules "reviews"), so that's justification enough, I suppose. Maybe a little extra work? Maybe, but you're getting catalog titles, in proper HD, with no harm done to your wallet - or any far-flung stranger's sense of propriety over such things.

  • EVAN MORRIS | April 4, 2012 2:57 PMReply

    Can you tell me what that stand-up bit from Mindy Kaling's from, so I can download it?

  • Chas Arthur | April 3, 2012 4:58 PMReply

    Mike you do realize you come off as one of the most pompous self-entitled elitist knobs imaginable right?

    Maybe if your early career as a screenwriter/ filmmaker actually developed into something more substantial than a blogger, you'd have a different opinion on piracy.

    Please post an image of your incredible home-video setup that demands nothing less than blu-ray. I'm guessing a 27" Samsung with inbuilt sound.

  • Steven Rellum | April 2, 2012 7:22 PMReply

    Sorry folks ... I can't include paragraph breaks on this blog and it turns out I can't delete multiple posts either. If I hurt your eyes I apologize.

  • Robert Fuller | April 1, 2012 12:22 PMReply

    I don't really care if you download Blu-ray movies, but you might want to pick a better argument than "but, it's not available to rent!" Well, so what? Neither is computer software, but it's still stealing to download it. Nobody said you're entitled to rent any movie, just because someone in the '70s came up with the idea. It's the same as thinking it's okay to illegally download a book just because they don't have it at your local library.

  • Robert Fuller | April 11, 2012 1:49 AM

    "steal: to appropriate (ideas, credit, words, etc.) without right or acknowledgment. "

    That's from dictionary.com.

    Anyone else have anything retarded to add?

  • NastyButler | April 9, 2012 5:12 PM

    Wrong again Robert. You can't "steal" an idea either. Ideas have very little value anyway. Execution is where the value comes into the equation. That's why patents are so ridiculous. You need to grab a dictionary (or go to dictionary.com) and educate yourself on the difference between "stealing" and "infringment."

  • Robert Fuller | April 3, 2012 10:06 PM

    *Sigh* I can't believe I suddenly find myself on the ANTI-piracy side of this argument. As I said before, I'm not actually against downloading movies.

    That said, no, actually, I didn't download Mike's column. I clicked on a link from his web site. I'm pretty sure that's not the same thing as downloading. But in any case, neither he nor IndieWire are charging anyone money to read it. You can't steal something that the owner is offering for free to everyone.

    And of course downloading can be stealing. "Stealing" doesn't necessarily mean depriving someone of a tangible object. You can steal an idea.

    So that was a very nice speech, but it was both incorrect and entirely wasted on me. I'm guessing you wrote it some time ago and now you just whip it out as a stock response anytime you see the words "downloading" and "stealing" together, since almost none of it is specific to anything I said (how exactly did you determine what my "logic" is from the simple statement, "It's still stealing to download it"? I made no logical argument concerning that issue!).

  • Steven Rellum | April 2, 2012 7:20 PM

    It's not stealing to download something ever. Regardless of why you download it. I assume that you downloaded Mike's column onto your computer without having obtained his explicit consent. I know I did. We don't know whether he was paid for his work or not, and we don't know if IndieWire reposted it illegally or not. Are you and I thieves? By your logic, yes, because you haven't bothered to vet the publishing legitimacy of this post (just as BitTottent users usually fail to do.). By my logic, no. Do you refuse to listen to a radio station until you can prove that that radio station is paying the proper licensing fees? If not, then by your logic, you are stealing - downloading something onto a appliance for your personal use without knowing if you have the copyright owner's consent. The RIAA actually took the argument that FM radio stations were copyright infringers up the court chain in the 1940s, by the way. So your parents and grandparents were almost certainly stealing according to you, as they almost certainly listened to the radio before the courts affirmed our right to do so. (And I believe they will inevitably affirm our right to make digital copies for personal use as well.) Do you really believe that "Axe body spray will fix you up" or hypnotize teenage models into wanting to kiss you? "Downloading is theft" came from the same marketing factories and carries the same weight. The industry developed that marketing slogan as a response to reality: Downloading is technically covered by a law against illegal copying, a law that is unethical, unenforceable and possibly unconstitutional when applied to home-use digital copies, not to mention one that is as relevant to a consumer as the law against cutting off mattress tags. So they had to create a believable lie.

    I've been taping music off the radio since I was a tween. That broke the same law that downloading does. I also stole once or twice - and trust me, it breaks a whole other set of laws, plus it hurts people. We know better. Let's act like it. The RIAA is a lot of things but it isn't our church.

  • Steven Rellum | April 2, 2012 7:19 PM

    It's not stealing to download something ever. Regardless of why you download it.

    I assume that you downloaded Mike's column onto your computer without having obtained his explicit consent. I know I did. We don't know whether he was paid for his work or not, and we don't know if IndieWire reposted it illegally or not. Are you and I thieves? By your logic, yes, because you haven't bothered to vet the publishing legitimacy of this post (just as BitTottent users usually fail to do.). By my logic, no.

    Do you refuse to listen to a radio station until you can prove that that radio station is paying the proper licensing fees? If not, then by your logic, you are stealing - downloading something onto a appliance for your personal use without knowing if you have the copyright owner's consent.

    The RIAA actually took the argument that FM radio stations were copyright infringers up the court chain in the 1940s, by the way. So your parents and grandparents were almost certainly stealing according to you, as they almost certainly listened to the radio before the courts affirmed our right to do so. (And I believe they will inevitably affirm our right to make digital copies for personal use as well.)

    Do you really believe that "Axe body spray will fix you up" or hypnotize teenage models into wanting to kiss you? "Downloading is theft" came from the same marketing factories and carries the same weight. The industry developed that marketing slogan as a response to reality: Downloading is technically covered by a law against illegal copying, a law that is unethical, unenforceable and possibly unconstitutional when applied to home-use digital copies, not to mention one that is as relevant to a consumer as the law against cutting off mattress tags. So they had to create a believable lie.

    I've been taping music off the radio since I was a tween. That broke the same law that downloading does. I also stole once or twice - and trust me, it breaks a whole other set of laws, plus it hurts people.

    We know better. Let's act like it. The RIAA is a lot of things but it isn't our church.

  • Robert Fuller | April 1, 2012 8:32 PM

    As soon as I hit "submit" I knew someone would refute that point. But I was really thinking more of computer games. I don't play them, but as far as I know there's no place that lets you rent a PC game, play the whole thing, and then return it (and yet you can rent console games). Or to use an example with which I'm more familiar: comic books. There's no way to legally read a comic book without buying it (or reading a friend's copy, of course... free comics naturally excepted). But my point still stands regardless of the existence of analogous products: just because there happens to be companies out there who will rent you a Blu-ray if they had it available, it doesn't mean that the lack of availability in any way justifies stealing it. But understand that I really have no problem with it. Just today, I theater hopped, which is arguably worse than what Mike does. But I make no attempts to justify it. I simply don't give a damn.

  • Jesse Mason | April 1, 2012 2:44 PM

    Actually, lots of computer software comes out as "free trial versions." Look at the app store, there're thousands of free apps, many of which can be upgraded to their full potential for a small fee. Anti-virus software has trial periods. My phone came loaded with lots of demo games, etc.

    I don't think books are exactly analogous to movies because of the time commitment involved, but Amazon is full of free downloadable excerpts.

  • Matt | March 31, 2012 10:39 PMReply

    I'd jump to Mike's defense here but I don't have much to add beyond what he's already said, and since most of his critics seem more interested in condemning him for other people's excesses than responding to or even acknowledging his actual arguments anyway I'm not sure why I should bother. Keep jerkin' those knees, folks. Keeps 'em limber.

  • Josh | March 31, 2012 7:22 PMReply

    FDSF pus it perfectly: "entitlement." If a person can, with a straight face, suggest that a less-than-convenient delivery system (or even a fully broken one) somehow entitles him to violate copyright law and the legal rights of artists, he is living in a dream world. It's arrogant. It surprises me that Indiewire ran this piece without a more legally grounded counterpoint.

  • Reg | April 3, 2012 11:54 PM

    The "entitlement" anti-piracy argument always reminds me of religious abstinence-only arguments regarding teen sex. The film industry says that people shouldn't download their products, but then they don't provide any viable alternatives in some cases. "Don't have sex, and don't masturbate, and wait until marriage....wait, how did you get pregnant?!??"

  • Jesse Mason | March 31, 2012 6:39 PMReply

    I think one thing that's been looked over is that a movie distribution model that only sells movies and doesn't rent them is doomed to failure. The vast majority of people do not buy movies they haven't seen.

  • fdsf | March 31, 2012 5:16 PMReply

    "Isn't Blu-ray already a compromise from 35mm?"

    You know what else is a compromise? Almost every aspect of adult life. If that's the best reason you can come up with that you MUST see HD versions of everything, regardless of what film it is, regardless of whether you're willing to pay to buy it... then you need to take a hard look at your own sense of entitlement.

  • Mike pappas | March 31, 2012 3:30 PMReply

    Your bio says you watch a lot of movies and you write about them. How about you get up off your ass and actually do some of the hump work to actually create something besides an opinion and then go steal some movies. See how it tastes then.

  • Tricia HollyUn Fass Ung | March 31, 2012 11:54 AMReply

    The vast majority of people don't know anything, that's why this post is not about who gives a rat's ass. That said, a global utopian novel in David Poland's future with a D'Angelo protagonist and a character that speaks like Nival would be good.

  • NIVAL | April 7, 2012 12:06 AM

    can you plz explain what you mean by that second line of yours?...

  • Nival | March 31, 2012 4:10 AMReply

    well i live in a small country called sri lanka jst below india and all we get is the biggest-budget bollywood flicks which are more or less the same and some superhero or fantasy flick which means we all together get about 10-15 most popular movies that are around. no oscar nominated films open here(except if its lotr or hp) let alone films like a separation. even the dvds available in shops, which are ripped off and available only at the time the original dvd is released, are pirated. its dif to find original copies. and the originals cost about 2000 rupees from our currency which is pretty high cost for a normal citizen. so when we here that pitt is wonderful in moneyball and clooney is at his best in decendants and how 'a separation' transcends barriers, we can only read the reviews and articles and long for them. we never get the chance to watch them in big screen. even the pirated dvds are not available for some movies. so when i tell you that i'd download my favourite movies' hd copies via torrents and connect my notebook into my projector and try to get close that 'cinematic' experience..do i sound like a criminal ???

  • Jessica | March 31, 2012 2:24 AMReply

    Yes Mike I did come in in the middle, but the idea of I can pirate what is not available when and where I want it still holds. So Netflix chooses not to buy a title ( which they are doing more and more of with indie films) and you respond by ripping off the distributor? Why don't you encourage your local library to carry the film or ask them to get it on inter-library loan? That of course would take time and effort, the same time and effort AND a lot of money distributors put into making films available on high quality dvd blu rays etc. You can't really justify one form of piracy and say another is wrong. The vast majority of people illegally downloading films don't give a rat's ass if it is on netflix and the people putting them up don't care if the film has not even been released. I find it staggering that you want to illegally download movies because they are just not easily available and you might have to buy it or ask the library to get it in order for you to see it.

  • Pete Apruzzese | March 30, 2012 9:52 PMReply

    If that many people want to rent these films but can't because Netflix, et al, don't carry them, then what this sounds like is a business opportunity for you, Mike. Set up an indie online Blu-ray rental shop and service this vast customer base. I'll write you a business plan for a small piece of the action.

    In both of my jobs we see serious losses due to piracy so, sorry, I can't agree with your posting in the least. People downloading torrents are one reason Netflix has stopped buying catalog reissues.

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 8:06 PMReply

    Jessica: I get the feeling you didn't read much of what I wrote. Mostly I'm talking about films that have already been released on video, but that are inaccessible *for rental* because no stores carry them and neither do Netflix or Blockbuster. I don't support people pirating something like This Is Not a Film that simply isn't available yet, but soon will be. (And w/r/t image quality, the entire reason I'm downloading the film 99% of the time is because I want to watch the newly released Blu-ray but nobody will rent it to me. They look fantastic, albeit not as good as the actual disc would. I'm not downloading CAM bootlegs of The Hunger Games. That's indefensible.)

  • Chas Arthur | April 3, 2012 5:03 PM

    Why don't you list all the blu-rays no one will rent you Mike? Let's see if its 99% or maybe you've just fudged the numbers in an attempt to justify your actions. Time to put up or shut up.

  • Jessica | March 30, 2012 7:48 PMReply

    I am joining this a bit late but what exactly are your parameters for illegal downloads Mike? Films shown at Cannes but not yet released in the US? Films released in the US in New York but not yet on DVD within 30 days? Films shown on TCM but not yet released on DVD or just films you want to see that the rights holder has not managed to put on on DVD or at a price you think is fair? As someone very actively involved independent film distribution for public shows ( a old fashioned concept I suppose) I can not begin to tell you how devastating piracy has been. Among the films I am currently working on is Panahi's THIS IS NOT A FILM which indeed premiered at Cannes almost a year ago and is just now being released in the US. Yes it takes time to do contracts, get materials, arrange bookings etc. In the meantime of course the film is being illegally downloaded all over the place. Heck we recently found an Ivy League university doing a public show the same week the film opened in New York. Piracy NEVER helps films, all it does it destroy the market for legal distribution in both theaters and DVD. I could give you titles of some terrific films that will never make it to home DVD because the pirate market or just the fear of the pirate market makes it impossible to justify the cost of really nice transfer. What you do in stealing movies is help guarantee that many great and not so great films will never be seen in theaters, independent film venuse, or decent quality video. You really think that bit torrent download is the best copy or do you just not care about that?

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 7:10 PMReply

    James: Right, but if you missed DESMOISELLES that week, you could still see WOMAN IN THE DUNES (or whatever) the following week. I'm talking about a situation in which virtually all of film history pre-2000, with the exception of wildly popular titles like THE GODFATHER and such, is being closed off. Did you read my original blog post? I was a Netflix subscriber, and they stopped purchasing catalog titles on Blu. So I switched to Blockbuster, and *they* stopped purchasing catalog titles on Blu. What reason do I have to believe this situation is gonna magically reverse itself? Your answer seems to be: tough shit. Then read books. Forgive me if I don't consider that a realistic viewpoint.

  • Ron Merk | March 30, 2012 7:03 PMReply

    Okay, okay. Everybody listen. IF you have to ask yourself if doing something is wrong, you most likely already know the answer. Any way you wrap illegal downloads or duplicating copyrighted programs, it's still STEALING. You are not only stealing somebody else's property, but you're also stealing someone's ability to make a living. The more "free downloads" that take place, the move filmmakers and all the people associated with making films will lose jobs. If you can't get back the cost of a movie, and make a reasonable profit, then people are going to stop making good movies. Sure, every "artiste" and "genius" out there will make something they call a movie, and put it on the Internet for exposure or to satisfy some portion of their ego, but most of these films are pure garbage, made by people who are amateurs (and not in that original meaning, loving something). As the overall quality of films plunge, and that's pretty clear in the more than 8000 or so features submitted this year to The Sundance Film Festival, most people will lose their interest in taking a chance on something unknown. If it's wrong for your friends to rip a DVD, then it's wrong for you to watch it. At some point, you have to draw a moral line, or just remember that Biblical commandment, "Thou shalt not steal." As someone who's been in the film industry for more than four decades, and who has seen the value of his work plummet to ten per cent of what it used to generate, I'm just tired of listening to this moral discussion about downloading illegally-obtained material. It's WRONG, plain and simple.

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 8:35 PM

    Congratulations, Ron, you've successfully written a rebuttal that ignores every single word I actually wrote. Remember the bit about "There's no talking to these people"? I AM NOT DEFENDING PIRACY AS A GENERAL PRACTICE, which is what you are talking about.

  • james | March 30, 2012 6:57 PMReply

    Mike, I agree that something along the lines of iTunes is part of the solution. But the other crucial part is more stringent piracy laws. Its foolish to think they will stop everyone from downloading illegally, but if they can make things just a bit more difficult, then most people will migrate to legitimate sites. And its at that point, that a truly sustainable business model can take hold.

    But in the meantime, i find your argument that 'if you could pay you would, but you can't, so you'll download', very problematic. Renting movies is not a human right. If you can't rent a movie, you do not have a God- or State-given right to see it. Ok, here goes another analogy - Back before VHS, if you missed the 35mm screening of LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT at your local rep house, well then, you just didn't see it. Nobody rioted and looted the studio warehouse.

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 6:56 PMReply

    No.

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 7:00 PM

    Oh, wait, I didn't read that carefully enough. A ripped movie? I meant going to a friend's to watch his legally purchased copy of the physical disc. You're still not paying anything for your "initial experience" in that specific medium. That argument is self-evidently goofy.

  • Josh | March 30, 2012 6:39 PMReply

    (My reply to your point didn't work below; putting it up here.) You don't think distributors have considered that very question? "What about the people who watch it for free at a friend's house?" They have. Economically, those losses have been factored in. If someone at the house has procured the film legally (either by buying or renting it), it compensates, partly. But I'll put the question right back to you: *Isn't* it unethical to watch a ripped movie at a friend's house?

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 6:31 PMReply

    James: If I had a good answer for that, I'd be in a different line of work. But I'm convinced that the solution would be something along the lines of the iTunes store, which has by no means ended illegal downloads of music (nothing ever will), but *has* created a viable option for the majority of fundamentally honest folks out there, making plenty of money for plenty of artists. I WOULD MUCH RATHER PAY FOR EVERYTHING. I can't stress that enough. I'm only downloading films at the moment when there's nobody willing to take my money (unless I buy the film outright, which is like 8-10 more money than a one-time rental is worth).

  • James | March 30, 2012 6:16 PMReply

    Mike, I'm curious what you mean by it demanding some limitations. Because in the same way that my plasma tv analogy is not perfect, neither is the lending it some friends comparison accurate. There's a fundamental difference in lending a DVD to a few friends, hell even to a 100 friends, than making your DVD available to millions of people around the world. Both analogies are ill equipped for this new technology.

    But what is accurate, is that not all people are as virtuous as you, many believe it or not will download a film instead of buying it, and even if it's a small percentage of illegal downloads, it does take away money from artists and distributors. And the reality is that without this money, it's impossible to continue making films and to survive in this industry.

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 6:08 PMReply

    David: I'm sorry, I'm just not willing to pay upwards of $20 for a one-time rental. And I really think insisting that that's the honorable thing to do is just plain nuts. However, I do agree that this problem will sort itself out in time, and one could argue that there are enough other films to see (and books to read, and meals to share, etc.) to keep me plenty busy until that happens. A fair rebuttal.

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 6:04 PMReply

    Josh, that's a silly analogy. "They could just bake another" -- requiring new ingredients (for which there's a cost) and additional time. Not the same thing at all. And I'm not sure what you're getting at with the "initial experience" part -- the vast majority of films I download I saw 10 or more years ago and am now revisiting.

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 6:24 PM

    Oh please. The cost of a Blu-ray is not for the experience of watching it. You can buy it and never watch it (which is in fact true of many DVDs I own). It's simply for the right to own the physical product. Again, by your logic, it should be unethical to go watch a Blu-ray at a friend's house.

  • Josh | March 30, 2012 6:19 PM

    Far from silly. The "initial experience" is you seeing the movie on advanced Blu-ray technology (not degraded tech from 10 years ago). What is the value of that? They say $20-something dollars. You say zero dollars. And you don't get to decide that, legally. They do. You do realize it costs distributors money to produce this technology. So for you to basically say: I can't afford it/it's impossible for me to find it -- that is no justification for you to then do an end-rip around them. It's arrogant to claim that needing to see the movie trumps this.

  • Andrew Grant | March 30, 2012 5:59 PMReply

    I have respect for both Mike and Denis Doros, and as a (currently inactive) distributor of small indie films (all of which were on torrent sites shortly after their release) one would think I would naturally side with Denis, but I'm honestly conflicted on this one.

    Let's look at Netflix streaming for a moment. Though Netflix bought DVD copies of my titles, they refused to carry any of them on their streaming service. (This was when it was just launched.) Their basis for choosing titles, or so they told me, was based on how many people had it in their queue. They never told me what that number had to be, mind you.

    Yet even if they had taken my titles, the deal was not pay-per-view. It was a one-time licensing fee for a certain period. It made no financial difference if 1 or 1,000,000 people watched the film.

    I realize this is drifting a bit from Mike's initial argument, for he is discussing digital versions of physical media, but the point is that Mike renting or not renting (or legally streaming or not streaming) a title, at least in the Netflix model, has zero effect on revenue. How does this differ from what Mike is currently doing?

    Where companies get hit the most is in sales. As Dennis pointed out, if only 5% of the illegal downloaders bought the title, that would be $50,000 more in Milestone's pocket. But again, we are talking about sales only, not rental/streaming. And who's to say that 5% of the downloaders didn't go and buy the disc (which offered much more than the film itself)?

    I can go to in to a bookshop and read as much as I like of a title before deciding to purchase it. Ditto for listening to CDs and records (such stores do still exist here in Germany).

    I trust Mike when he says that if he likes a film he'll buy it. Again -- Blus offer much more than just the film. But yeah, not everybody is like Mike. But that's not going to change. Ever. As long as there is a way to make something digital and pass it around, it's going to continue.

    So what's the answer? I think Mike spells it out -- if the titles were available, he'd happily pay the fee to rent them. That said, I think bitching about not being able to see DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY on blu-ray is a bit of a non-starter -- come on, will there be *that* much of a difference from the DVD release? But as someone who has bought many Criterion and MOC titles over the years, I too would like to see how they look before upgrading.

  • David Poland | March 30, 2012 5:58 PMReply

    Seriously? $22 for Bell du Jour in Blu on Amazon. Buy it... don't steal it.

    A film is completely unavailable in any way? Yeah.. I get that. Of course, the studios are adjusting to this and now more and more WB and Fox's libraries are available to be burned just for those of us looking for obscure titles.

    How much do I believe in paying for it? When I can't get a foreign title on Amazon here, I'll go onto their international sites and pay international shipping to get it here. I don't just hop on the web and steal it.

    I just watched my VCDs of Battle Royale - who knows if it was legal? - but saw that it was being re-released on Blu-ray... so I paid for the damned thing.

    You are one of the smart guys in this game, Mike. Please don't become one of those "well, if I can't get it how I want it right now and for a price I like, I am right to steal it" guys. Drew McWeeny finally stood up against piracy in a clear and uncompromising way... and now the forces of honorable commerce are losing you? Was it a prisoner swap?

    All of this will be a non-issue in 5-10 years, when everything is HD and available and streaming. But let's not live on that excuse in the meanwhile. Not as professionals. Please.

  • Josh | March 30, 2012 5:49 PMReply

    Merely recognizing that the system is an imperfect one (that is, the system of renting rare Blu-rays to obsessive film fans) doesn't exempt anyone from the ethics of stealing. I could come up with many hypothetical "imperfect systems," none of which would justify a person's taking and enjoying something without compensation. Imagine a world in which peach pies were not widely available, except if you made one yourself or bought them from some snazzy store. (Bear with me for a sec.) Would it ever be defensible -- by any stretch of logic -- that you could steal a cooling pie off someone's window sill? But hey: They could just bake another! Or: But hey, my ripped copy of Belle de Jour isn't the only pie! They still have the original recipe! Wrong. Your initial experience of the art (something that many creative people strained to provided you with) *is* the pie.

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 5:44 PMReply

    James: That's a more complicated question than you seem to think it is. Obviously the filmmaker and/or distributor don't want to just put the film out there for free. They'd like people to buy it. Ideally, they'd like everyone in the world to buy multiple copies, but that's not enforceable. All they can do is make it available to those who wish to buy it, whether because (a) they'd like to own a copy for their personal home-video library, or (b) they think they can make a profit renting it out to people who *don't* want to buy it right this second. The people who don't wish to buy the film under any circumstances are really not their concern. Those people are free to, say, borrow a copy from a friend. By your logic, that would be wrong, because by borrowing it from a friend I've experienced the movie without cost, contrary to the desire of the folks who made it. But I think we can all agree that that's ridiculous. Obviously the leap to "borrowing" a film from multiple strangers is a significant one that demands some limitations, but it's not as cut-and-dried as you suggest.

  • James | March 30, 2012 5:21 PMReply

    Mike, putting aside definitions and analogies, the bottom line is that by downloading a film, you are disregarding the intentions of the creatore/rights holder. Doesn't that count for something in your book? Forget about the fact that you never intended to buy the DVD anyway, but the person who spent his time and money to create this film, has indicated that it should not be available for free online (otherwise, he/she would've put it on youtube). Isn't that just not right on a very basic human/ethical level?

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 5:02 PMReply

    Actually, no, James, that's not analogous. Analogous would be if you walked into a Best Buy, touched a 50" plasma, magically created an exact duplicate, took *that* home, watched a movie on it, and then destroyed it by touching it again. In your version, the store can't sell the TV while it's in your possession, and that's where the harm lies. In truth, there is absolutely no reason why downloading should technically be illegal, except that we've decreed it to be so. It isn't theft -- it's exactly the same as if I photocopied all the pages of a book in my possession and mailed them to you in lieu of simply lending you the book itself. The *only* distinction is that downloading a film involves having many total strangers lend it to you simultaneously. It's fine for us as a society to decide that's deleterious and make it illegal, but the dictionary definition of theft has zilch to do with it.

  • James | March 30, 2012 4:50 PMReply

    The problem Mike is that you're splitting hairs of what is a pretty universally understood definition.

    Under your logic, if i walk into a Best Buy, and walk out with a 50" Plasma while no one is looking, take it home just to watch a movie on it, and bring it back the next day, then its fine. No one was hurt or lost money. All is ok!

    Stealing as defined in the dictionary: 1.Take (another person's property) without permission or legal right.

    It's really that simple. It either is or it isn't.

    One last point, Dennis is completely on the money when he says the piracy argument too often uses Studios as the bad guys. No one ever talks about the filmmakers, or indie distributors, or the myriad of businesses dependent on them.

  • Nastybutler | April 9, 2012 5:15 PM

    Intellectual property is as imaginary as unicorns. You can't steal imaginary property.

  • Scott | March 30, 2012 4:26 PMReply

    Some people are always going to use piracy* as a means of getting shit for free, no matter how much you try to cater to them. People pirate those Humble Indie Bundle things even though they offer the option of paying as little as one cent.

    However, this is not to say that trying to cater to an untapped set of consumers is futile. Yeah, if Netflix offered, say, the Arte vidéo Blu-ray of LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT, plenty would still pirate it anyway, but there is a group of people that probably includes Mr. D'Angelo that would pay to rent it at least once.

    * By piracy, I really mean copyright infringement. They're not hijacking boats off the coast of Somalia, for christ's sake.

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 4:13 PMReply

    Marc: How exactly do you suggest that I "deal with it"? By simply not watching the films? That solves the problem how?

    Dennis: The last time I saw Killer of Sheep, I didn't like it enough to want to own a permanent copy. That may change if I take a second look, which I'd very much like to do. But not at the cost of purchasing it. If we stipulate that (a) I am not going to buy the movie without watching it again; (b) if I watch it again and love it this time, I *will* in fact buy it; and (c) if I watch it again and don't love it this time, I will simply delete the file—all of which are 100% true—please explain to me how my theoretical download of the film is depriving you, Charles Burnett or anybody else of income.

    (In point of fact there is no Blu-ray of Killer of Sheep at this time, as far as I can determine, and I can easily get hold of the standard DVD, so there's no reason for me to pirate it and I wouldn't do so. But you get the general idea. However, if it's somehow the case that people are pirating Killer of Sheep specifically because they have no other access to it apart from buying it, when all they want to do is to watch it a single time, that's a problem you need to address if you can. Rent the damn things from your website. I'll pay.)

    Barry: "The owner has no obligation to make their product easily available"? That's what they're doing by selling it in the first place. Anyone can buy a copy and then rent it to others. I could do it, and so could you. Hence the existence of a rental market. And if certain films effectively don't exist in that market, you can rest assured that an alternative will arise. Before the Internet was in widespread use, that was folks passing beat-up VHS tapes around. It's just easier now, and while that does present a problem, the solution is to present consumers with a reasonable option (see: iTunes store re: music), not dispense moralistic judgments.

  • Marc | March 31, 2012 2:40 AM

    I suggest you deal with it by understanding that you have no pre-existing right to be able to see any film you want at any time. Learn to postpone your joy. Be an adult. The amount of access cinephiles have today to their drug of choice would have made a film lover of even ten years ago cream their jeans with happiness. Appreciate that. Pay for what you want to consume, and if the price is too high, don't buy. Welcome to the world.

  • Mike D'Angelo | March 30, 2012 6:17 PM

    Dennis, you're not looking past your specific grievance to what I'm actually saying, which makes it difficult to communicate. I did not suggest that piracy has not hurt your company. I'm sure it has. (I did say "if" certain conditions prevailed, you should look into fixing them; you tell me they do not, and I believe you.) Nor am I remotely arguing that piracy is fine and dandy in any and all circumstances. If Killer of Sheep is readily available for rental in its highest-quality format, then there is no defensible reason for anyone to pirate it. That's not the exception for which I'm making a case in this piece.

  • Dennis Doros | March 30, 2012 5:48 PM

    Mike, I'm sorry, I don't usually say bad things about people, but you're a few reels short of a feature. I give you a real example of how illegal sales hurt a distributor, and yet, you say they're not true. Netflix does offer Killer of Sheep cheaply for rental, yet there are still all those illegal downloads. And when we used to have two employees when the DVD business was working, now we have none. That's two less people employed in the business.

  • David | March 30, 2012 3:56 PMReply

    @Jeff who said: "No one has a "right" to watch certain films"

    I suppose that's true, but what a horrible way to put it. No one has a "right" to enjoy any piece of art, but as a filmmaker myself, I don't know anyone who makes movies with the intent of have their work languish unseen.

    I don't download movies off the internet, however I do occasionally buy bootleg DVDs of obscure films that simply aren't available any other way. These are movies that have zero value outside a very narrow and specific collectors market. Studios and distributors simply can't make money producing and marketing a DVD that might only sell 40 or 50 copies a year. In many cases, while the movie may not be technically in the public domain, the rights are often muddled to the point that a mainstream DVD release would be impossible, even if it were economically viable.

    Do I have a "right" to watch these films? I don't know - but I buy them and don't feel one ounce of guilt. Filmmakers want their movies to be seen and remembered, and I want to help fulfill that legacy. It is an absolute fact that movies in the hands of private collectors have been an invaluable component of preserving film history.

    @Marc : In some instances, what you say is true. Under the circumstance I'm referring to, it almost never is. In most cases we are talking about films that have long been abandoned by studios or rights holders. I would much rather buy a legit DVD. It would be cheaper (bootlegs average 20 bucks a pop) and far better quality, but such titles just don't fall into the mainstream distribution model. And again, while I may not have the right to see these movies, I feel strongly that these movies have a right to been.

  • David | March 30, 2012 4:25 PM

    Sorry, that last sentence should have read: "And again, while I may not have the right to see these movies, I feel strongly that these movies have a right to be seen."

  • Barry | March 30, 2012 3:46 PMReply

    I simply can not understand anyone being proud of stealing the art of others. That is all that is in discussion here, nothing else. No one is entitled to an item owned by another and the owner has no obligation to make their property easily available. Why anyone would feel otherwise has to be traced to a feeling of entitlement that is untenable.

    The input of artists who create and then celebrate that their films are stolen "for the benefit of promotion" are not thinking it though. Yes, you do have the right to give your product away if you decide that would be to your benefit. I would suggest offering your art for free on your website and asking for donations. But no one has the right to steal your product. (I suspect that if the government came up with a rule that 30% of those watching your film had a right to do so for free - you might be a bit upset. How is that different?)

    Any one theft is of very little concern. But it is the combined weight of a world of theft that is harming our industry. It takes away dearly needed financial return that would otherwise go to the benefit of all in the string, from the distributor all the way back to the conceptual artist -in short, our industry. And we need our industry to be healthy so that there is a place for our art.

    Please rethink the morality of your theft.

  • Steve | March 30, 2012 3:39 PMReply

    Dennis, how do you know that 90% of the Pirate Bay downloaders of KILLER OF SHEEP don't live in countries where the DVD is unavailable? Also, for what it's worth, I owned a bootleg VHS copy of the film and still went to see it on the big screen when Milestone released it.

    There's something grotesque about claiming that it's "immoral" to download films which the American marketplace has made unavailable, such as Jacques Rivette's OUT 1. (I realize that's not exactly what Dennis is doing, but he tars all piracy with that adjective.) At present, this film has not been released on DVD or Blu-Ray anywhere in the world. Companies like Kino Lorber, Facets and Criterion and their European equivalents have obviously decided they can't make money off it. Downloading it may be illegal, but I don't think it's any more unethical than taking an out-of-print book out of the library.

  • Dennis Doros | March 30, 2012 5:34 PM

    Killer of Sheep is available from Les films du Paradoxe in France and the BFI in England, and we have worldwide rights so anyone can order it off our website and it's zone free. As for films that are not available, there are several films we truly loved that we have rejected because the profits are marginal AND they're available illegally. So the cart is before the horse many times.

    And a library has paid for the book and the community has paid for the library. When you take it out, it's not an illegal transaction.

  • Alan Gorg | March 30, 2012 3:15 PMReply

    Alan Gorg
    _______________________________________________________________
    http://alangorg.wordpress.com
    _______________________________________________________________
    http://indieflix.com/search/?q=alan+gorg
    _______________________________________________________________
    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dmovies-tv&field-keywords=alan+gorg&x=16&y=21
    _______________________________________________________________

  • Alan Gorg | March 30, 2012 3:12 PMReply

    As a little-known independent filmmaker with films in distribution, i welcome and am happy if and when my films might be pirated. My reading and research has convinced me such pirating would serve as publicity to promote the long-term success of the films. This opinion is not original with myself. Some prominent producers with lots of pirating say it helped their promotions.

    Many who get pirated DVDs eventually purchase legal DVDs. If you step back and reflect,
    producers will pay to send out DVDs by the bushel to promote their films, which is exactly what pirates do without charge.

    Please pirate my films. Thank you.

    Alan Gorg

    http://alangorg.wordpress.com

    http://indieflix.com/search/?q=alan+gorg

    http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dmovies-tv&field-keywords=alan+gorg&x=16&y=21

  • Dennis Doros | March 30, 2012 3:00 PMReply

    I was going to write a well-reasoned response but it's not "like" -- but it's "exactly" -- telling a child that they can't have every toy in the world. This article is just a rationalization for doing something immoral by simply stating it's not and with no care for the results of their actions. It's not just faceless studios and conglomerates (always the go-to villain in these cases with Mickey Mouse as the master exploiter of the world) but real filmmakers, actors, editors, composers and, yes, distributors who does not see a royalty from this theft. Our most popular title, KILLER OF SHEEP has been downloaded illegally over 100,000 times according to Pirate Bay and others own statistics. (And that's the sites I can find.) Even if 5% of those did so rather than buying the DVD, that's $50,000 that did not go to the director. Some filmmakers are fine with that. Others could use that kind of money to start making another film. It's really sad that IndieWire publishes this kind of one-sided propaganda without true reporting or balance.

  • Jeff | March 30, 2012 2:44 PMReply

    Not much point in beating this dead horse and it's not going to make any difference anyway. No one has a "right" to watch certain films, and the notion that you do is all about a sense of entitlement.

  • Marc | March 30, 2012 2:17 PMReply

    All you're doing is making it less likely that these titles will receive proper distribution on Blu Ray. Studios and independent distributors rely on sales/rentals to justify the expense of releasing these sorts of titles in the first place, and if they are only going to sell one copy (to the guy who rips and uploads it) I doubt they'll continue to bother. Capitalism sucks when ones tastes diverge from the mainstream, but this solution only worsens the problem. Until we live in a society which values film sufficiently to provide public money to ensure the availability of all movie to all viewers, the system will be imperfect. Deal with it. And, not to be snide,but shouldn't someone as widely published and regarded as Mr. D'Angelo be able to procure review copies from distributors without much trouble?