Should Piracy Punishments Scale To The Quality Of The Copy?

In a case involving the administrator of a BitTorrent tracker this week, a judge felt that punishments should reduce if low quality movies were being shared. On the other hand the plaintiffs argued that since their product was being devalued with poor quality reproduction, compensation should actually increase. In a separate case in Argentina, seven pirates just walked because their copies were poor, and the public knew it.

Considering the huge crackdown against illegal camming in recent years it’s clear that the movie industry, rightly or wrongly, perceives this type of piracy as a serious threat. Indeed, they have succeeded in making the activity a criminal offense in many parts of the world.

One might argue that their actions have been pretty successful. Five years ago or more, very high-quality cammed movies were commonplace on the Internet and the release of the best Telesyncs (cammed video with a direct sound source) from Scene groups such as Centropy and maVen were a highly prized and anticipated event. These days, although cams are still reasonably common, very high-quality releases are much less prevalent. Mission accomplished then? Maybe not.

This week the case against the administrator of the EliteBits BitTorrent tracker came to its conclusion, with the judge pondering on an interesting issue.

The judge said that since he could not assess the quality of the movies being offered via EliteBits, he found it difficult to know how much compensation to award the movie companies. The implication was that rightsholders should get less money if the product was low quality – cammed movies for instance – but lawyers for the plaintiffs disagreed. They said that rightholders lose goodwill when films are distributed in poor quality so the compensation should be more.

This raises an interesting argument. There is a school of thought which suggests that when people are presented with a cam copy of movie they will expect it to be poor. However, if they enjoy it, they will invest in a trip to the theater to see it properly. Others won’t even want to spoil their enjoyment by watching these inferior copies and will see the movie in the theater straight off. It’s probably fair to assume that people expect some aspect of a copy to be lower quality that the original.

There can’t have been many people who didn’t appreciate that when the workprint copy of Wolverine leaked out, they were getting an unfinished product. Did the lack of effects ruin the reputation of the movie? Sales seems to suggest not. Would the movie industry have preferred it if a perfect copy had leaked out in this instance rather than a second-rate version? Hardly. Nevertheless, the Wolverine leaker was still hauled over the coals, much more so than those who leak perfect copies. However, if he had lived in Argentina, things might have been different for him.

This week a case was heard in Argentina’s Federal Court. It involved the issue of seven individuals caught selling pirate movies on the streets in 2008. In the first hearing the individuals were found guilty of copyright and trademark offenses but in the latest hearing that decision was overturned – and it all came down to the quality of the product they sold.

The judge decided that it was “impossible to jeopardize the credibility of the legitimate manufacturers” since the buyers of the pirate copies knew full well they were getting an inferior product. One might argue that individuals downloading cammed material from EliteBits also knew that they wouldn’t be getting a good copy, yet rightsholders in that case would certainly have disagreed with the judge’s assertion here.

So, if there is to be any punishment at all for sharing copyright material, should quality be taken into consideration? Should a perfect DVDrip of a movie attract a higher fine because people are less likely to seek out and pay for an original?

Should those sharing low bitrate MP3s be left alone because they providing a low-quality try-before-you-buy service, or should they be heavily punished for ruining the reputation of the artist with a pale imitation of the real thing? As usual, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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