Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Social Epidemic of Piracy

Great story in Sunday's L.A. Times about the global web of pirated movies. The amazing sequence of events outlined in the article underscores the social epidemic of piracy. The story of bootlegged copies of Spider-Man 2 after it premiered in New York on June 30, 2004 is quite alarming:

  1. June 30, 2004, one minute after midnight: A cammer illegally records Spider-Man 2 at a theater in Manhattan.
  1. The recording is transferred to a computer and, often, posted online. The master copy is delivered to a manufacturer either as a DVD or electronically.4 a.m. the same day: Pirates of the Theatre, a group of bootleggers ... posts [online] a copy of Spider-Man 2.
  1. The manufacturer starts churning out discs, then sells to a network of distributors. They, in turn, sell to teams of vendors and street peddlers.Hours later: Movie is downloaded and thousands of copies are made. First counterfeit DVDs for sale are seized in New York, New Jersey and the Philippines.
  1. Other bootleggers get the bogus DVD and start making their own versions. Meanwhile, online pirates obtain the disc and post its contents to the Internet.A week later: Bootleg DVDs of "Spider-Man 2" have been seized in nine countries.
  1. Manufacturers around the globe download the movie file from the Internet and produce more copies to feed their own networks of distributors and retailers. By the end of July: Authorities have recovered contraband copies in 22 countries. Virtually all the copies can be traced to three illegal recordings, done at 12:01 a.m. June 30.

That last paragraph bears emphasis: Thousands of pirated copies sold in almost two-dozen countries thirty days after the film's release can all be traced to three illegal recordings at Manhattan theaters on opening night.

Quite reminescent of the social epidemic theory outlined in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. According to Gladwell, the key to an epidemic is "the law of the few", "the stickiness factor", and "the power of context." A couple of cammers ("the few) record and distribute on the Internet extraordinarily popular ("sticky") movies, and the global culture of online contraband movies ("context") creates a tremendous market for the product. The end result: a global epidemic of a popular pirated movie.

Gladwell's response to criminal epidemics is James Q. Wilson's theory of "Broken Windows." "If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes." (p. 141). He suggests that the solution to major crime is to change the environment that spawns minor crime.

What if every country that tolerated piracy was treated by the world community like an urban neighborhood that tolerated broken windows? Will changing the social context in these countries on "petty" theft like piracy alter their attitude about the rule of law for more serious offenses? What if we were to employ, as USTR recently announced, "all tools and resources at our disposal to bring pressure to bear on countries to reform their intellectual property regimes"? This list of recent enforcement efforts is encouraging. Piracy epidemics will no doubt continue, but stricter enforcement efforts brought to bear against targeted countries might stem the tide. That's good not simply for fighting piracy, but for pomoting the rule of law in those countries.


Blogger anonymous said...

Having just re-read Gladwell's Tipping Point a month ago, I can state the exam here has little to do with a tipping condition -- though it certainly appears to on the surface. Indeed, The Tipping Point's basic concepts are still sound, but somewhat dated upon re-reading now, years later.

The comment that the fact the bulk of bootlegs can be traced to three Manhattan tapings has nothing to do with a tipping point -- at all. Rather it's simply a factor of the speed of distribution the internet provides -- nothing more, nothing less. The propogation thereafter is again a factor of distribution channel, and NONE of the factors Gladwell recounts.

10/11/2005 1:04 PM  
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