"Piracy" Declines as Legal Streaming of Movies Grows in 2011: Is SOPA Necessary?

With more people streaming movies via Netflix and other legal services - and using their iPads, Kindles, and tablets, which don’t have hard drives for huge movie files - the threat from online movie "pirates" seems to be in decline.

The revenue from paid-for online video increased by 200% in 2011, while at the same time there was a significant drop - almost 40% - from 2010 to 2011 in illegal downloading of each year's most pirated film.

Why is movie piracy apparently on the decline? One answer might be that the new films in 2011 weren't worth the effort. But another answer (which corresponds nicely with the increase in paid streaming) is that consumers and the content owners have found a better model for delivering content online - a model that consumers are willing to pay for.

BitTorrent sites offer FREE illegal downloads - but the data from music and motion picture sites all over the world suggests that consumers are actually willing to PAY for the convenience and quality of legitimate streaming services.

In short, just like when VCRs were first invented, the movie industry may have over-sold the "piracy" threat from a new technology, focusing only on the threat to an old revenue stream - even as the new technology (in the 1980s it was videotape rental, in 2012 it will be VOD streaming) begins to pour untold millions into their coffers.

If you're over 40, you may remember that the early adopters of videotape machines and the MPAA tussled in the early days of the VCR. If you grew up with VCRs and DVD players, you know that eventually the Hollywood businesspeople were able to find a way to make big money off the new technology.

Just as the MPAA fought home video players in the 1980s - only to make huge revenue from DVDs thereafter - the movie industry has recently been fighting a free and open Internet. In particular, the MPAA has been contributing heavily to key legislators in an effort to get a new (and deeply flawed) law - SOPA - passed in Congress in early 2012.

SOPA would kill innovation on the Internet - giving big-content companies the power to shut down access to foreign sites that might have hosted one offending video or song - and creating a whole new scheme that would require American services to scour their sites for links to allegedly offending sites. But the MPAA insists it needs SOPA's draconian measures to fight "piracy."

Whether SOPA would actually work is an open question. Many technologists say that SOPA would not deter determined pirates. In fact, some coders have already built workarounds, just in case SOPA passes.

So, even though there are significant doubts about SOPA's effectiveness, the MPAA is spending heavily to get it passed.

Throw in the fact that some experts - like Google's founder Sergey Brin - are outspoken opponents of SOPA, saying the law creates a whole new scheme for Internet censorship similar to that practiced in China and Iran, and you'll begin to see why so many entrepreneurs and free speech advocates oppose SOPA.

SOPA will be taken up again in Congress right after the 2011-2012 holiday break - at the exact moment that we are receiving news that a new revenue model - streaming legal VOD - has taken hold. If streaming works - and is generating growing revenue, without the awful (unintended innovation-killing censorship) consequences of SOPA - why are we voting a whole new scheme of censorship into place?

Will Congress get the message that SOPA is a bad law that fixes a problem (online piracy) that is already in decline?

If you want to help, you can sign this petition.

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Randy Finch's Film Blog:

Thoughts from a film producer about making and distributing films.