Cutting off the nose to spite the face: Tamil film industry to halt movie releases to “combat piracy”

In one of the most bizarre cases of copyright-maximalism we’ve encountered so far, it appears that the Tamil Film Producers’ Council has discovered a new solution to the problem of movie piracy: stop releasing movies altogether. At a meeting on Sunday, apparently, the Council came to the resolution that the only way to stop movie piracy was to halt movie releases for a three-month period. This is especially problematic, given that Tamil Nadu is one of the states that have added (see Act 32 of 2004 here [PDF]) video piracy to the list of offences enumerated in the Goondas Act, thereby giving the police enormous power to detain and take action against suspected pirates. The fact that industry bodies feel the need to act against pirates despite the existence of such overreaching legislation is worrisome, indeed.

The “logic” is fairly simple: pirates need content to pirate, and the film industry produces content.

“Piracy will automatically stop when there’s no content. When we stop film releases, say for three months, the movie pirates will go out of business. We are looking into this option because film producers have suffered heavily in the last 24 months,” Kalaipuli S Thanu, TFPC president told IANS.

However, the TFPC needs to understand several things about how the content market functions.

First, there already exists enough content on the internet to keep every single “pirate” entertained for centuries. Stopping the release of new movies is somewhat similar to cutting off a river from the ocean and waiting for the ocean to dry up.

Second, the scheduling of movie releases is an intricate tap-dance – filmmakers often prefer not to release movies when the competition is high. By stalling the release of movies for three months, what the TFPC would really be doing is shooting itself in the foot by pushing those releases to the already crowded summer season, increasing competition and decreasing revenue for each of these films.

Finally, the language employed by Mr. Thanu seems to imply that he (and his organisation) looks at pirates as businessmen, and piracy as a business model that can be killed off by cutting its revenue. This is problematic because piracy, unlike the film industry, does not depend solely on the revenue earned by the individual pirate. Since most pirates don’t look at file-sharing as a business, it makes little difference for them whether they make any money out of it. Even if we were to buy into the premise that a large proportion of piracy is revenue-oriented, the fact remains that such a move wouldn’t choke revenue supply, since there exists nearly a century’s worth of content available for reproduction and distribution.

At one level, it’s possible to see the move as symptomatic of the kind of frustration that motivate rights-holders’ action against piracy. If filmmakers are desperate enough to resort to a complete standstill in the hope of tackling piracy, there’s definitely something wrong with the way in which the content market works.

However, it would be much easier to sympathise with organisations such as the TFPC if they understood piracy as an inevitable phenomenon in today’s information ecosystem, and adapted to this “new world order”, as it were. We’ve seen how it’s possible for content creators to work outside the copyright-based monetisation framework and get rewarded richly – in my previous post, for example.

Instead, the TFPC’s reaction seems to be akin to throwing the bathwater with the baby. The industry needs to realise that its dirty bathwater – piracy – is inevitable, and cannot be thrown out, while the baby – revenue – is not. In effect, what the industry is actually doing is throwing the baby and keeping the bathwater.

Thankfully, it appears that the TFPC’s decision is yet to be finalised – the body has passed a resolution, but is set to hold stakeholder consultations before it’s implemented. One can only hope that more reasonable voices shall prevail at these stages.

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