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Article > Downloading Is Stealing
Description :: Lies, obfuscation, and a deliberate disrespect for parallelism in analogy
Moviegoers recently have been treated to a more proactive marketing campaign by the Motion Picture Association of America. Now every time they go see a theatrical release, they are reminded that downloading movies is stealing. If you haven't been blessed with this unique viewing experience, it goes something like this:

you wouldn't steal a car
you wouldn't steal a handbag
you wouldn't steal a television
you wouldn't steal a DVD
downloading pirated films is stealing
stealing is against the law

(with appropriate video footage for each act)

I think it's interesting that the MPAA--who would like very much for you to believe that you don't own the rights to do anything with a movie you bought, other than to watch it exactly as they provided/intended--are going the route that they are. They're implying that stuffing a DVD under your jacket and walking out of the store with it is the same as downloading a copy of the same movie. Just in case this argument doesn't seem incongruent to you, let me outline some reasons that it is:
  • Both the DVD and the file you downloaded contain an electronic version of the movie, but in different formats. DVDs are MPEG-2 video with AC3 audio. Most of what you download is MPEG-4 with MP3 (or WMA, or Ogg Vorbis, etc.) audio. Downloaded versions are almost always significantly lower quality, in that the (1) resolution is smaller than DVD, (2) due to higher compression, the video quality is often worse (sometimes significantly so) than DVD, (3) due to higher compression, audio is almost always worse quality than DVD (4) downloaded files tend to have audio in stereo (sometimes mono!)--no 5.1 channel audio, no DTS. For that matter, no Dolby Digital or Prologic capabilities either, (5) almost always the downloaded movie is going to be in file format that doesn't support multiple audio or subtitle tracks. That means that, unlike with a DVD, you're stuck with audio in exactly one language, and if subtitles are included, they're part of the video itself--they can't be turned off or switched to another language.
  • What you download is a copy of the movie, from start to finish. Most of the downloaded file formats don't support things like turning on deleted scenes, watching a theatrical vs. director's cut, viewing the movie with the director's commentary, seeing how the movie was made, seeing a scene from multiple camera angles, etc. One of the biggest perks of the DVD format is that you get all of these "extras" with the movie, for about the same price as just getting the movie on VHS (at much lower, non-digital quality, no less). So the fact that none of these extras come with the files you download is a big deal. Most of the time you can't find the extras, to download separately, even if you wanted to.
  • DVD is a very standardized format. A DVD disc will play in just about any stand-alone commercial DVD player on the market. Downloaded movies can be played in commercial DVD players only if they're in SVCD or DVD format**. While there are a number of movies available in SVCD format, these are even lower quality than MPEG-4, and generally not much better than watching VHS. In comparison to MPEG-4, SVCD is (1) not as common, (2) lower video and audio quality, (3) much larger in size (but still nowhere near the size of actual DVDs). However, MPEG-4 will not play in stand-alone players (with the exception of a very few DivX players, but often MPEG-4 videos aren't encoded in DivX anyways)--you need a PC to play them, you need to download special codecs (or codec packs) in order to play them even on your PC, and you're going to be watching them on your little 15" monitor, unless you've invested some big bucks in a surround sound system (and sound card) for your PC, a video card that will do HDTV out, etc. If your primary goal in downloading movies was saving money, you're probably not going to have an awesome PC-based home theater--as the types of people who would invest in such a theater wouldn't mind dropping the money per DVD and just saving themselves the hassle of jumping through all those technical hoops.
  • The single biggest difference though in their argument that "stealing DVD is like downloading movie" is the issue of a potential sale. If a physical copy of a pressed DVD disc in a plastic box with a booklet included is stolen off a shelf, a customer has been lost. That copy can no longer purchased, and money has been lost--but not by the MPAA! It cost the MPAA to provide the materials, press the disc, package, and ship it to retail--but those costs were immediately covered when the retail chain purchased the DVD in order to put it on their shelves. The stolen boxed DVD is a loss to the retail chain (a product they can no longer sell), not a loss to the MPAA. The way the MPAA tries to convince everyone that they're losing money is some convoluted logic in which they: (1) Estimate how many copies of movies are downloaded per year, without the MPAA seeing a penny from sales (note: this is impossible to estimate with any degree of accuracy), (2) Make the invalid assumption that every one of those downloaded movies would have been a DVD sold in retail, if not for the damnable internet, (3) State grossly exaggerated figures based on the product of the number from (1) and the average selling price of the DVDs retail (which is going to be much higher than the price the MPAA sells them to retail chains, and thus look more damaging)--and lo, piracy is denying the MPAA of billions of dollars in sales a year! Bullshit. The problem is that most of the people downloading movies would never buy 95 to 99% of those movies retail. For one thing, they don't have that kind of money, and for another, they simply don't care enough.
  • Downloading movies takes time. A lot of time. Much more time than one would spend getting in one's car, driving to the store, and purchasing a DVD. How much time depends on the size of the files being downloaded, the available upstream connection speed for the person sharing the movie, and the available downstream connection speed for the person downloading it (the lesser of the two, which is almost always upstream, determines the rate of transfer).
  • Downloading movies takes space. Depending on how many movies are being downloaded and how much space each one takes up, there is a potential need for a not at all insignificant amount of hard drive space. Even if one burns movies to CD/DVD as they are downloaded, the space taken up by incomplete downloads can really add up.

So how is downloading like stealing, when downloaded files are lesser quality, sans extra features, lacking compatibility with consumer products (and home theater setups), require additional time to acquire and additional hard drive (but no physical) space to store--and most importantly--when downloading doesn't directly translate into lost sales like theft does? It doesn't. It doesn't add up.

** There are copies of entire DVDs available for download. However, they are huge in comparison to MPEG-4 and SVCD copies, and consequently are far less common (available for far fewer movies), and less popular. They aren't generally considered practical for file trading as they take too long to get and, as they are often available by BitTorrent, sources for them are often shut down before users get a complete copy of anything. They're large enough that they don't generally fit on writeable DVDs, which means they must be stored on and viewed from one's hard drive, and few people have the kind of hard drive space necessary to have such a collection. These aren't, presently, really a threat to the MPAA in any significant way.
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Owned by Insignis - Created on 07/24/2005 - Last edited on 03/03/2006

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