This week, Voltage pictures, the small studio that produced the 2009 Best Picture Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, sued 5,000 people. They claim that these people illegally downloaded their copyrighted movie, and they’re threatening to sue for the maximum $150,000. But they’ll settle for $1,500 if you pay now.
I understand the movie industry’s frustration with piracy. Just like the RIAA before them, the MPAA and independent studios see piracy as a severe hemorrhage of revenue, and the first reaction is to sue the offenders’ pants off. The only problem? There are thousands of offenders, and to sue some poor college kid usually makes you look like the bad guy.
Still, major studios started a campaign a while ago, suing mass amounts of people who infringed on copyright laws. The idea was to “make an example” of a few individuals and scare the crap out of the rest of us. It has never worked.
Now, though, it seems the aim of Voltage pictures is entirely different. In the initial letter to defendants, Voltage basically tells you that you can “opt out” of being sued and settle for $1,500 (NOTE: This figure is based on previous similar lawsuits in the past few months filed by the dreaded U.S. Copyright Group, the company spearheading this mass-suit effort. The actual settlement figure is unknown). There’s even a website (like this one) where you can go to get more information and promptly pay your “bill.” It’s a new age, and lawyers have found a way to do for the lawsuit what Henry Ford did for the automobile. Ain’t technology grand?
What’s really different about this round of suits, though, is that they are coming from a small group of small film companies, not the majors. This isn’t Warner Brothers or Paramount suing for infringements on the latest Harry Potter or Iron Man movie. And it’s also the biggest round of litigation ever put forward with more than 50,000 people being sued in the last few months. In all its media-covered time of suing the enemies of Metallica, the RIAA only sued 40,000. So, Voltage pictures (and the rest of you), why so many? I have a theory.
These are smaller movies. I mean, seriously, did anyone actually watch the Uwe Boll crapfest Far Cry? Even a high-profile title like Hurt Locker grossed less than $13 million, and since it cost $11 million to make, it is, for all its awards praise, a box-office flop. So I can only come to one conclusion about why a group of small studios with a slew of unsuccessful or moderately successful films would sue the few people who bothered to see their movies…they want money.
I mean, if this were about righting a wrong, discouraging piracy or “taking out” massive file sharers, there wouldn’t be so many suits filed, and, more importantly, there wouldn’t be such an easy buy-out option for these suits. $1,500 is a LOT of money, but when compared to the legal costs and headache of fighting this suit, it’s nothing. It’s probably worth it just to take out a small loan, write a check and forget the whole thing.
And I believe that’s what Voltage is banking on. With 5,000 suits on the table, there is NO WAY they could ever actually prosecute each one. By setting a manageable settlement fee, Voltage is ensuring that the vast majority will just pay without question. Voltage’s lawyers just had to file a few pieces of paperwork and BOOM, $1,500 smacks a person. That should help the investors make a good chunk of change on their mildly unsuccessful oscar-winner.
Let’s do the math. Five-thousand people, times $1,500 is $7.5 million dollars. That is 59% of the movies TOTAL domestic gross. If this isn’t a push to make money, I don’t know what else it could be.
So will this become a legitimate revenue stream for smaller movies? Will we see studios “leak” DVD-quality films they know won’t do well so that pirates will download them and then be sued? I mean, let’s face it…many people who pirate movies are pirating the movies they are luke-warm about and wouldn’t bother paying to see ANYWAY, so if you can turn those slackers into a revenue stream, why not?
Piracy is wrong. But to use it as a source of income is just as wrong, and this is not the reason that civil suits exist. In theory (and probably practice), Voltage stands to make a significantly larger sum of money from these suits than they ever would have from DVD sales…even if EVERY pirate had rented or bought a copy of the film.
Not to mention the insanity of being able to sue for $150,000 for a single act of copyright infringement. Downloading a copyrighted movie is wrong, but seriously…is it any less wrong to ruin some 19-year-old college kid’s life because he bit-torrented Borat because he couldn’t get a ride to the theater?
If there’s one thing I know about the film industry, though, it’s this: as long as there is money to be made, this won’t stop. I’ll spare you my diatribe about how industry should embrace technology in a capitalistic society, offering value-added products instead of defending outdated business models. But make no mistake…the studios are just as cut-throat as the pirates (aargh!), and this fight isn’t about ethics, principles or doing the right thing. It’s about cash…and that’s all.