Film Piracy and Mobile Phones

Cory Doctrow writes in The Guardian this week about how some movie theatres have begun to confiscate mobile phones from their patrons, supposedly as a way to combat piracy. Doctrow's main focus is on the terrible threat to privacy posed by this practice: Who knows what's happening to your phone while it's in the custody of the theatre owners? Some theatre employee could be going through your contact list, viewing your photos, looking through your data, listening to your voice mail, or even (and this is fairly plausible, given the available online market) cloning your phone's SIM.

While I've yet to see any theatres doing this myself, these are all very real privacy risks, especially given that theatre owners apparently haven't yet developed any policies about how they will secure confiscated phones. If the practice continues, no doubt some guidelines sooner or later will be supplied by case law. But still, I can't seriously see myself surrendering my phone to some teenage usher at the local cineplex. If this became the norm, it simply would provide me with with one more reason not to bother going to the movies.

So far so good. But the other main focus of Doctorow's piece (and some of the online discussion that it has generated) strikes me as pretty much completely specious. In a nutshell, the claim is that cam recording of feature films isn't really that big of a deal and that cam recording using cell phones is essentially a non-existent problem. According to Doctrow, the real action, the real threat to the movie industry, comes from screeners and other illegal pre-release distribution of films.

Well, yes and no. If you go onto a typical bitorrent site, I reckon that the majority of titles you'll see are DVD rips--that's to say, copies ripped from commercial DVDs. Amongst the pre-release or 'in theatres now' content, there is, it's true, a pretty obvious preference hierarchy. The best quality (and so most desirable) torrents are screeners. But there are still plenty of 'cam' (i.e., recording on camcorder) titles. And, I'd submit, there always will be so long as the cultural logic of Hollywood holds sway. Having seen the latest blockbuster is a positional good: It's value at least partly consists in having been the first person you know to have seen the film. (Of course, the same goes for having seen the latest cool independent release or art house film, probably even more so.) So, as long as 'seeing it while it's hot' (or as Roland Barthes might have said, while it's 'receivable') remains part of a film's value, there will be a pretty straightforward algorithm driving the behavious of file sharers: Is a screener copy available? If yes, grab that. If not, then there will be at least some demand for a cam copy. And, inevitably, almost ineluctably, someone will fill that demand.

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