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Study Suggests Studios Aren’t Offering Enough Online Legal Options to Counter Movie Piracy

Adding to a growing body of competing data on who bears the blame for rampant online infringement, two George Mason U scholars unveiled a website that claims that few of the most pirated movies are even available online legally.

Shorter windows would help counter piracy, the authors say, though theater owners are unlikely to agree with changing windows substantially in the near future.

The site — piracydata.org — shows that of the top 10 most pirated movies in the past week, none are available for streaming, three were available for digital rental and six were available for digital purchase. The authors of the study, Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado from GMU’s Mercatus Center and developer Matt Sherman, relied on data from TorrentFreak and Can I Stream It. The top pirated movie, “Pacific Rim,” was available only for digital purchase, their study showed.

The study showed that over the past three weeks, 53% of the most pirated movies have been available legally in some digital form. In the same period, only 25% have been available for rental or streaming, and 0% have been available on a legal streaming service.

Brito said that he decided to do the study after the MPAA unveiled a study several weeks ago showing that search engines like Google lead users to infringing movies and TV shows. At a congressional hearing, Cary Sherman, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, urged more voluntary agreements between search engines and the content industry to try to curb piracy.

Brito wrote in a blog post that “while there is no way to draw causality between the fact that these movies are not available legally and that they are the most pirated, it does highlight that while the MPAA is asking Google to take voluntary action to change search results, it may well be within the movie studio’s power to change those results by taking voluntary action themselves. That is, they could make more movies available online and sooner, perhaps by collapsing the theatrical release window.”

Yet the MPAA challenged some of the figures as well as the premise, pointing out the availability of movies like “This Is the End” on Vudu, Google Play, Sony Entertainment Network, iTunes and Amazon. The Piracydata.org figure was corrected, but it also lists “Pacific Rim” for digital purchase but not rental or streaming. Yet it is available on YouTube movies which, depending on how you look at it, is a streaming service as well as a digital rental and purchase service.

“More than half of the films they cite are in fact available to stream or download, including films they claim are not,” said an MPAA spokeswoman. “And if a film is not available for stream or purchase at a given moment, it still does not justify stealing it from the creators and makers who worked hard to make it.”

The MPAA offers its own tool to find legal movie options online, wheretowatch.org, but it is not a search tool for titles, but simply a listing of online providers like iTunes, Vudu and Amazon.

The movie “Elysium” is not going to be made available on iTunes until late November, according to the site, and on Blu-ray and Ultraviolet in December. But it was available for illegal streaming shortly after its August release, yet studios risk the ire of theater owners if they offer legal downloads of movies during their runs at the multiplex.

Britto acknowledged first-day glitches on his site in a lengthy blog post, and noted that data is being updated as movies become available.

“One thing is for certain: the dataset that we are proposing to build is important,” he wrote. “We have provoked quite a reaction from people on both sides of this issue. We acknowledge that it has been a bumpy launch for our site, but we are committed to getting it right.”

The site, glitches or not, is another instance of the back-and-forth between the content and tech policy communities in Washington over who is responsible for online infringement. A few weeks ago, the MPAA unveiled a study showing that search engines like Google play a major role in introducing audiences to pirated content via their search results. Yet Google and the trade group the Internet Assn. have for some time said that the greater availability of legal online alternatives will alleviate problems with piracy. That seems to be the premise behind the Piracydata.org site. Google provides support to the Mercatus Center.

The MPAA has promoted the availability of more movie and TV content online, but it also suggests that that alone won’t solve the problems with piracy. The org noted that “The Walking Dead” was pirated 500,000 times within 16 hours despite the fact that it was available to stream for free over the next 27 days on AMC’s website and distributed in 125 countries around the world after it aired.

“Our industry is working hard to bring content to audiences when they want it, where they want it, but content theft is a complex problem that requires comprehensive voluntary solutions from all stakeholders involved,” the MPAA spokeswoman said.

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