Tim Wu On The Tension Between Promotion and Piracy

Of course, Microsoft has managed this pretty effectively, but the network effects of software are somewhat different from those of popularity: Please pirate my Sundance film

Film piracy, the conventional wisdom goes, is a threat to the film industry at all levels. Thats certainly the sense at the Sundance Film Festival, where both the festival and distributors invest heavily in anti-piracy measures, including undercover agents who attend screenings to capture illicit videotapers. But it turns out that they may be wasting their money. Sundance films, present and past, simply do not register in the online pirate world—unless they are one of the few that have already made it big like Clerks or Little Miss Sunshine. This proves two things: When it comes to content piracy, obscurity, not security, is the best defense. It also demonstrates that movie pirates are fundamentally parasitic, not predatory.

[…] Not a single 2008 Sundance film is on any major pirate site that I could find. That might be accounted for by anti-piracy measures, but here’s the kicker: There are also almost no 2007 films on leading pirate sites, and none of last year’s Sundance “hits.” The online pirate world and the Sundance world are, as far as I can tell, separate domains.

Why this result? The simplest explanation is that it takes a critical mass of interest—lots of people who want to see a film—before it will get decent pirate distribution. There are a number of reasons for this, but, crucially, every step of the piracy distribution system relies on knowing that the film exists at all. Moreover, to get effective, fast distribution on a peer-to-peer network, you need lots of reliable peers—enough people willing to share the burden of distributing the film online.

In the end, it’s a numbers game. […]