Picking up on the piracy-doublespeak theme of my last post, let’s highlight a favorite talking point among piracy advocates and apologists, the one that goes like this: If the major producers were just smart enough to make works available conveniently and affordably, people would stop pirating. That was always a lie. And it’s been proven a lie by the filmed-entertainment industry because a huge volume of content—more than any normal person has time to watch—has been made conveniently and affordably available, and yet piracy continues to increase. More than that, piracy has become so sophisticated that potential new users of pirate sites don’t have to be sophisticated at all.
Until fairly recently, a user generally had to be aware that he was visiting an infringing site to illegally download or stream a motion picture or TV show. If he was committed enough to his piracy, he’d have to follow some of the trends, know which pirate sites are doing what, invest in a VPN to hide his tracks, and spend some time searching for specific titles. Now, the process is made much easier with device-based piracy, often referred to generically as “Kodi Boxes,” after the name of one of the first products to enter this market. Essentially, these devices work like an AppleTV or Roku, but because they’re built on open-source operating systems, third-party “add-on” software was made available almost immediately to turn these devices into piracy boxes.
With add-on software, the user gets a Neflix-like graphic interface offering nearly any title he can think of for free. What the device does in the background is locate the target material on a pirate site’s server somewhere in cyberspace and then stream it from that infringing location via the box to the user’s screen. It’s all very clean and prettied up just like a legit product, requiring no more savvy than the use of a TV remote. It’s so easy that a small child can steal cartoons in her pajamas on Saturday morning without waking Mom and Dad for help.
Enter Dragon Box
On January 10, a complaint was filed in California District Court against developer Paul Christoforo and reseller Jeff Williams of Dragon Box—a device pre-loaded with piracy software and which is overtly advertised to consumers as a substitute for paying for cable, Netflix, Hulu, or any legal supplier of filmed entertainment, including online gaming. Plaintiffs, which comprise Netflix, Amazon, and six major motion picture studios, allege that Dragon Media Inc. intentionally facilitates and induces mass infringement of their works via the function of Dragon Box and the manner in which it is marketed to the public. Here’s the sample ad cited in the complaint:
That ad alone is sufficient to imply that this case probably won’t last very long—meaning Dragon Media Inc. won’t last very long because they don’t seem to have a claw to stand on. Advertising a device that delivers on a promise to enable consumers to watch subscription-based content without said subscription is about as clear-cut as selling bootleg DVDs out of a warehouse. I’m frankly surprised the defendants imagined they’d get very far with this one, operating out of Carlsbad, CA and blatantly promoting illegal access to just about every kind of media content available. Beyond the eight plaintiffs in this litigation, Dragon Box’s advertising implicates the sports and news interests, the cable and satellite providers, and so much more! Their interface even offer a menu selection called “In Theaters,” thus facilitating and promoting access to pirate streams of movies weeks or months ahead of their release on digital platforms. Because freedom I guess.
I imagine this case will conclude rather quickly with a summary judgment for the plaintiffs. It’s very hard to imagine Dragon Media sustaining a reasonable defense, let alone a prolonged one against basically the entire film and TV-producing universe, both large and small. In fact, because these devices are sold as a for-profit venture, providing a product designed to enable mass copyright infringement, the defendants should be glad not to facing criminal charges, rather than a civil suit. Of course, this probably won’t stop the piracy advocates from concocting some theory as to why Dragon Box is perfectly legal.
Piracy Boxes Change the Landscape
One of the reasons, piracy advocates convince themselves and others that their actions are harmless is that the damage done thus far tends to be relatively obscure. When piracy causes an independent filmmaker to lose the margin between profit and loss, her story is dwarfed by reports that Hollywood’s millionaires are still making millions. Or when producer Martha de Laurentiis blames piracy as a major factor in the cancellation of a hit TV show, and it’s just one anecdote in a market that is clearly replete with content.
The big picture gives lie, the pirates will say, to the premise that piracy does much harm at all. And this conclusion then justifies the claim that copyright enforcement in the digital age is inherently draconian. These are the climate-change deniers among piracy advocates—the ones who cannot imagine how relatively small examples of harm imply that piracy, like all forms of harm, has a tipping point. Clearly, the millions of dollars invested in new production depend on a substantial majority of the market not pirating.
Meanwhile, we are currently witnessing an expansive and speculative period when companies like Netflix and Amazon are spending a lot of debt capital to produce new works and grow market-share, with only their subscription/rental platforms as revenue sources. I stands to reason that if a piracy-box market attained a certain volume, this would be an even greater threat to the digital-only producers than it is to the traditional studios releasing movies in theaters etc.
And, no I don’t care about Jeff Bezos either. In fact, I’m not a fan. But I do care about the creative professionals Amazon has to hire to make the recent Golden Globe winning The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, or whatever else they produce next. And it’s patently absurd to assume that production will simply continue to grow and innovate if piracy continues to increase toward the tipping point, wherever it may be.
In this regard, devices like Dragon Box have tremendous potential to accelerate piracy toward the threshold of more demonstrative market harm because these boxes make access to pirate sites so easy, seamless, and invisible. Presumably, a plug-and-play device marketed in this way will draw consumers who would not otherwise engage in piracy. And if it were allowed to mature, this is a dragon that could easily burn up all the crops. Fortunately, I predict this case will conclude rather quickly and serve as a deterrent to the next “entrepreneur.”