With major blockbusters set for simultaneous home releases in 2021, new legislation in the US is set to fuel a fresh piracy battle.

Amidst the assorted debates over the current state of cinema, and when and where films should be released, it feels a little like the thorny issue of piracy is the bit not really being talked about that much. Yet expect it to be thrust firmly into the limelight again over the coming months as more and more blockbuster films head to our homes a whole lot quicker.

It’s thoroughly well known by now that Warner Bros has decided to send its entire 2021 movie slate to both cinemas and its HBO Max streaming platform in the US simultaneously. That’s what’s been grabbing headlines.

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But the lack of HBO Max in most of the rest of the world means that Warner Bros will still be committing to theatrical exclusive releases elsewhere. Sure, we’ve just had the news that Wonder Woman 1984 will be getting a premium video on demand release faster than planned in the UK – it hits on January 13th, less than a month after the film’s cinema debut – yet given that the majority of the country’s cinemas are shut, that’s little surprise. We wait to see if that’s the exception than the norm over here.

What’s unlikely to be an exception is the piracy factor: few aren’t expecting Wonder Woman 1984 to be pirated, probably quite heavily, when it makes its Christmas Day bow in the US.

Likewise, as and when any film goes straight to a streaming service or truncates its theatrical window, that’s the ramification that movie studios have to deal with. That it’s now an unfortunate part of doing business that the films will be before the eyes of people who haven’t paid a penny for the privilege.

I’ve always wondered if there’s something of the self-service checkout about it all. That by supermarkets installing self-service checkouts – unexpected item in the bagging area and all – they accept that theft will massively increased, but it’s still cheaper than doing things the other way around.

Yet simultaneous releasing, that’s felt inevitable for years, has worked for smaller, independent productions. Perhaps where people are more conscious of the damage that piracy does. To be clear, too: Film Stories obviously doesn’t condone piracy at all (we’re huge fans of cinema and physical media). In fact, we’ve been a victim of it ourselves this year, with our independent magazines – even the one for under 15s – popping up on torrent sites.

Back to movies. The pivot that began in earnest with Trolls World Tour back in March has turned us towards a path where it’s the big films adopting the simultaneous release strategy as their norm rather than the exception now.

Trolls world tour poster image

According to charts compiled by news site Torrentfreak, it’s the high-profile releases that headed to premium video on demand that have, inevitably, been of interest to pirates.

Bill & Ted Face The Music, Mulan, Greyhound, The Witches and Greenland sit as some of the most illegally downloaded movies of the year. Furthermore, within a month of the UK being locked down for the first time last spring, it was said that movie piracy had soared by 60%.

But the performance of Mulan has caused some pause in particular.

The film’s premium access release – with a $29.99 premium price in the US, £19.99 in the UK, all on top of the monthly Disney+ subscription fee – didn’t generate the expected and hope for revenue for Disney. Conversely, research suggested that it soared on illegal download platforms.

The difference from previous years – and this is where fears over Warner Bros’ move are centred – is that the length of time it takes for a quality pirated copy of a film to land online has gone with the theatrical window. That even last year, the cinema exclusivity window restricted pirates to shakily-shot illegal copies until the home release of a film came around. Now? It seems like all bets are off.

It’s perhaps unsurprising then that as plans for 2021 release strategies have come to the fore, so have plans for a new crackdown on piracy. In the US at least, there’s been some progress there too over the last week or so.

That’s because Senator Thom Tillis has introduced a proposal in America – as part of a broader Covid-relief bill – that introduces firmer penalties into law for those who stream unlicensed material. At the most punitive end of its measures, those who stream movies and music illegally could face up to ten years in jail under US law.

One reason why the new proposal has earned more traction than previous attempts to get some legislation through the US governmental process – and copyright law is already on the US statute books in other forms – is just who it seeks to criminalise.

The onus now is switched away from the end user downloading a pirated copy of a film, and instead firmly shifts to those doing the streaming in the first place.

The broader bill its part of is due to be signed into law at the end of this week, although whether it’ll have any material impact will only be clear well into next year. But it does provide some different tools for studios to use, ones that’ll theoretically avoid headlines of piracy crackdowns of old where they ended up suing individual users.

The billion-dollar corporation going after someone struggling to make ends meet was never a great PR look, and studios found themselves damned if they chased down copyright breaches and damned if they didn’t. Ultimately, the majority of them gave up the ghost.

The new legislation may give those studios fresh impetus to test the waters again. Still, click through to see the replies to Tillis’ Tweet, and there’s a flavour of the backlash against it already…

Studios aren’t naïve. They know piracy isn’t a winnable war. But also, they know that chipping away at the problem does in theory rescue at least a sliver of lost revenue. By making it as difficult as possible, at least some downloaders may be convinced to go via legal means.

Most of the anti-piracy efforts in the UK that have been reported over the past months were on cases being brought by those illegally streaming sports matches. But the Federation Against Copyright Theft – as per the latest Raygun newsletter – has now started targeting subscribers to illegal streaming services in the UK.

As per its report, ‘the latest of those letters has just gone out to 7,000 subscribers to an IPTV service which enables them to watch premium channels for peanuts. The list was discovered after a raid on an illegal operation in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, when a man was arrested and goods seized’.

Successful prosecutions have also been completed this year against streaming operations around the UK. From what I can tell, the focus is primarily premium sports, but also those selling boxes that illegally bypass subscription firewalls have been successfully prosecuted in some cases this year. You can read more on the work of FACT in the UK, here.

Realistically, legalities are the only working option available for a piracy crackdown. There’s the argument that prices need to drop for digital films, yet it’s hard to qualify that when an indie film that was available to rent for just 99p landed in the top 100 illegally streamed movies at one point last year.

Furthermore, watermarking movies and TV shows is a possible option, to allow the tracing of streamed material. But if you’ve paid to watch a film or show in good faith, who wants any kind of visible watermark blocking even part of the picture?

Piracy has always been a thorn in the side of the industry, right back to the VHS days. Yet arguably never more so than now. Furthermore, the industry has never come up with a way – is there one, even? – to balance battling piracy against the PR side of criminalising individual users.

But with cinemas squeezed, and the new bill going through in the States, there’s likely fresh incentive for studios to at least try something more to battle it next year. The threat posed by quality copies being available so early may not be openly discussed that much in public, but behind the scenes, it’s surely a flashing warning light and a half.

Whether there’s anything that realistically can be done remains to be seen. But expect a stepping up of efforts in 2021, hand in hand with more and more blockbusters spending less time exclusively in cinemas.

Expect 2021 to be a bit of a year…

Certain images: BigStock

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