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When Film Distribution Fails, Piracy Wins

By David Vranicar TechNewsWorld ECT News Network
Nov 2, 2013 5:00 AM PT

Last month, researchers at George Mason University's Mercatus Center launched a website, PiracyData.org, to determine whether or not there are legal alternatives for viewing the world's most pirated movies.

When Film Distribution Fails, Piracy Wins

Drawing upon TorrentFreak's weekly list of the 10 most pirated movies, the researchers will quantify the validity (or invalidity) of copyright holders' claims that pirates are thieving material that is indeed available elsewhere, as well as claims that search engines like Google should quit linking to pirated content.

In this TechNewsWorld podcast, we are joined by Jerry Brito, a research fellow at the Mercatus Center and a cofounder of the site. Brito talks about how PiracyData.org came to be, the questions he hopes to answer and what copyright holders could and should do to slow down piracy (other than griping about search engines).

Here are some snippets from the podcast.

Listen to the podcast (22:24 minutes).

TechNewsWorld: There has long been a debate when it comes to file-sharing and to BitTorrents about what, exactly, the root cause of the problem is. The common gripe, or the party line, among copyright holders and the Motion Picture Association [of America] is that their content is indeed available legitimately online for all consumers to purchase on the up-and-up, while the pro-file-sharing contingent has claimed that no such alternatives exist and that piracy is little more than a service problem that has sprouted up because these products are not available elsewhere. When you had the idea to start this site, did you approach the project with a bias toward either of those viewpoints? Did you come into it thinking that one side might be more right than the other?

Jerry Brito: Well, personally, if I was running a movie studio, I would experiment with distribution and see if that had an effect. So yeah, I guess you could color me biased.

But really, we didn't start the site to address that particular question. The inspiration for the site was, last month [September], the MPAA put out a study that they commissioned looking at the effect that search engines -- and in particular Google, being the most dominant -- the effect of search engines on piracy. What they concluded was that search engines influence piracy: that consumers go to search engines, oftentimes without having the intention to do anything illegal -- they're simply searching for a movie that they want to watch -- and that the search engine leads them to a pirate site.

That same day there was a hearing in Congress looking at what voluntary steps search engines could take to address piracy, and again, the message from the content industry was, "While the advertising network industry and the payment processor industry had done a lot, the search engines, in particular Google, had not done enough to combat piracy."

It was very interesting to see that, and the implication was they should do more voluntarily, and if they don't do more voluntarily, maybe Congress should step in and give us something like SOPA, which would have censored what search results would look like to address piracy. And so the obvious question there is, "Boy... if 58 percent of all people who end up at a pirate site were just searching for a movie title, is that because we have search engines to blame? Or is it because somebody is going online looking to watch a movie, they have no illegal intention, but there is just no other option?" ...

So that was the reason we did this, to understand, why is Google returning search results that might lead on to pirate content? Is it because simply they're not doing enough to self-censor? Or is it because, well, that's just the state of the world -- there isn't a better or legitimate place? ...

TechNewsWorld: Have search engines historically -- and I guess presently -- been "blind" to the sources to which they are referring people? In Google's algorithms, for example, is there any prejudice against or for a streaming site or a BitTorrent site versus what would be the Motion Picture Association's preferred avenue that they would be directed to?

Brito: That's a good question because it goes to what is the responsibility of a search engine like Google. Search engines like Google strive to do two things. One, reflect the data that exists on the Internet. But of course any algorithm is going to have some bias, and so I think the bias that they're choosing is, they're going to want to give customers what they want. And they\u2019re going to want to be as neutral as they can be, because ultimately their reputation is on the line.

If you remember back when Yahoo was sort of the No. 1 search engine before Google -- Yahoo was sort of the portal everybody went through -- and at some point Yahoo began selling placements higher in the results. And after that they lost all confidence from their consumers because people were saying, "Oh, well, the results I'm getting are not an accurate representation of the Web -- it's simply what people are paying for."

So you can imagine a search engine today being very sensitive to not being seen as either selling higher placement, or otherwise biasing a particular point of view of a particular service. And on the same token, they don't want to be seen as censoring any other particular point of view or service. So I think that's sort of the baseline from which search engines operate.

And then the question is, what is their responsibility? Because again, look, piracy is illegal, piracy is wrong, and to some extent people are using the website to access that information -- what responsibility do they have?

David Vranicar is a freelance journalist and author of The Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis. You can check out his ECT News archive here, and you can email him at david[dot]vranicar[at]newsroom[dot]ectnews[dot]com.

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