Defining Visions: Free Morning in China

I was in Beijing for work a few weeks ago, and one free morning I wandered down the street toward the Forbidden City to do a little shopping. As usual, a virtual army of street hawkers greeted me with pirated DVDs by the handful. In previous trips I paid no attention, but this time I decided to have a look. After all, they cost just $1 each. So out of curiosity I decided to buy a few as a journalism experiment, since I write about issues like this.

A friend and I engaged one young man who offered a satchel full of disks in paper jackets that had the original cover art, with the titles also in Chinese. He had everything, it seemed. I bought three movies that were new to the theaters then – Star wars Episode III, Batman Begins and War of the Worlds. Also three older films: Sahara, After Sunset, and Sin City. Total price $6.

Understandably curious, I slipped them one-by-one, into my laptop's DVD drive as soon as I got back to the hotel, starting with Batman Begins, a movie I had planned to see when I got home. Well, I got a picture and sound. The only problem was that the soundtrack was in Russian. The setup menu offered English subtitles, but when they came on they were for a different movie – something having to do with life in a British board school. Go figure. For War of the Worlds, also in Russian, the subtitles seemed to relate to the movie, but they were in pigeon English and occasionally just fell away altogether.

You don't get something for nothing of course, but I have to say that the other four discs, somewhat older movies, played as they should, and the audio was in English. The picture quality was not great. Colors were muted, resolution quite poor. Most likely that was the result of copying the movie from the big-screen in a movie theater with a home video camera. (Modern-day pirates conscript two friends to sit in the row in front of the cameraman so there are no heads popping up during the middle of the show. I guess these two guys buy their popcorn before the movie begins.)

In any case, 4 viewable DVDs for $6 was still a deal, particularly when viewed on a laptop, where picture quality is not so essential. What should we conclude from this?

Well, we have to concede that Hollywood does have a problem with counterfeiting/piracy. No doubt these counterfeit DVDs sell by the many tens of thousand, all over the world. And without legitimate DVD sales, Hollywood would declare bankruptcy. Together with videocasettes, for rental and purchase, they provide Hollywood with $55.6 billion a year. That is two-thirds of their total revenue. Most of the rest, not even a full one-third, comes from theater ticket sales.

So you can understand why Hollywood's concern borders on paranoia. In a New York Times article last month, Peter Jackson, the director behind the new King Kong movie to be released later this year (and several previous blockbusters including the Lord of the Rings trilogy) complained that piracy "has the very real potential of tipping movies into becoming an unprofitable business." That is the industry line. But they absolutely believe it.

Now we get to home theater. I reported last month that the new high definition DVD players will allow you to watch high definition only if you have a display equipped with an HDMI input—disenfranchising 10 million early adopters with sets that lack that input. (I erred on one point: I said slightly older sets with DVI inputs would not work, either. In fact, in most cases, people who have sets with DVI inputs should be able to buy an adapter cable that will allow them to play the discs.)

That latest affront is one in a series of copyright restrictions that are limiting our ability to use our theaters as we would like – one new rule or restriction after another, month by month, year by year.

Now, I've discussed this issue with a Motion Picture Association of America official. He said the industry's view is that it must fight piracy everywhere if the battle is to have any effect. He noted that the industry is fighting to impose equipment restrictions to thwart the possibility of piracy in the future, even though none has yet occurred and there is no clear evidence that it might occur months or years from now.

Well, my view is this: If a pirate wants to break a copyright restriction on a high-definition DVD, sooner or later he is going to do it. Certainly the industry should not make it easy for him. But to force 10 million people to junk perfectly good equipment and buy new TVs, if they want to watch high-definition DVDs strikes me as onerous to the extreme.

I have never been one to say that the police, for example, should not waste time writing traffic tickets when there are so many unsolved murders and robberies. But the proportionality here is staggering. Copies of the very movies they are trying to protect are for sale on street corners around the world for $1 or less. And yet, you cannot watch high-definition versions of them in your home unless you buy a new TV.

Fight piracy on every front – but think about your customers, too. Maybe we will be so angry we just won't buy your products!