We All Know Movie Piracy Is Wrong. So Why Do We Do It?

We All Know Movie Piracy Is Wrong. So Why Do We Do It?

Beginning about 20 years ago, the internet placed almost the entirety of human creation in an unguarded window display and said, in effect, help yourself. The public, presented with an amazing smorgasboard of content, plunged right in. This eventually came to include nearly every movie and TV show in existence.

Piracy picture from Shutterstock

Ever since, the “content” industries have been running to catch up. They’ve invented rights management systems, experimented with pricing models, created new media windows and, when these haven’t worked, lobbied governments to sanction the free-for-all.

They’ve also pitched into the online infringers — people downloading but not paying for content — calling them pirates and their actions piracy, words freighted with centuries of social disapproval. The pirates have returned fire, casting the content owners as cigar-chomping moguls, extorting the public.

It’s a very black-and-white dialogue, and not very helpful.

Taking a step back

So how should content creators relate to audiences in the digital age? Is it business as usual or has the relationship changed in fundamental ways?

ScreenFutures, a group of established and emerging screen producers (including the authors of this article), makes the case that digital platforms enable a new kind of conversation between creators and audiences, less freighted and more interactive.

In this new conversation, audiences are no longer “couch potatoes” but fans – interested, opinionated, and involved with creators in the act of constructing the social meaning of the work.

Through crowdfunding services such as Pozible audiences can help bring the work to fruition and even help distribute it through services such as Tugg (which allows people to “book” movies into their local cinema by popular demand).

For creators whose first contact with audiences used to be standing at the back of a cinema and watching the punters file out, this is heady stuff.

They find themselves engaging with audiences much earlier and more fully than was conceivable even 10 years ago. Communication is the key.

So how should they regard fans who don’t or won’t pay?

ScreenFutures research findings

Earlier this year the ScreenFutures group commissioned a study by independent media researcher SARA.

The study surveyed nearly 1700 people aged 16-75 years and found that about 33% watched movies and TV shows illegally downloaded from the internet.

The researchers then surveyed more than 900 “direct pirates”, people who acknowledged they had personally downloaded content illegally – probing their attitudes and reasons for downloading.

The results showed there were many different motivations. Among “direct pirates” the chief attraction was that “it’s free” (20%). Others said they didn’t want to wait for legal releases (18%), or the shows they wanted weren’t legally available in Australia (16%).

Still others said they pirated because it was quick and easy (16%), while 10% said legal shows were too expensive.

These findings correlate with research recently reported by the Department of Communications, which measured illegal downloading in Australia and compared it with the UK (and yes, Australians are bigger downloaders).

Image credit: Luca Rossato

The standout finding

But the standout finding in the ScreenFutures study was that attitudes to illegal downloading among people who do it are very ambivalent.

Only one-in-five were unambiguously and defiantly in favour of piracy: the study dubbed these the Outraged Outlaws.

They were not worried about the legality or ethics of pirating, nor its effects on content creators. The only thing that might moderate their behaviour, they reported, was fines or other forms of punishment.

The next category was the Conscious Cowboys. These were people who acknowledged the questionable ethics and illegality of their behaviour but felt they were forced into it by the problems of access and pricing.

Their would modify their behaviour, they said, if the content they wanted were more readily available. They might also reconsider their behaviour in response to ads or educational campaigns.

Nearly a third (31%) of respondents fell into this category.

The third category was the Anxious Addicts, roughly a quarter (24%) of respondents. These people said they loved content and felt guilty about downloading it without paying.

They also worried about fines and acknowledged the arguments of anti-piracy campaigners – especially the damage to industry.

Finally, there were the Nervous Newcomers (19%). New to piracy, apprehensive, doing it mainly because other people were, they were very sensitive to the arguments and open to changing their behaviour.

In short, four out of five people who download illegally have doubts about it, feel nervous or guilty, or sense they may be doing the wrong thing.


There is a conflict between creators and audiences over access to works but it is not deep nor is it intractable.

Except for a noisy minority – less than 10% of the overall population – audiences know they should be paying for content and feel bad about it when they don’t.

The data shows that people who download without paying are often genuine fans who readily pay for content at other times.

These facts need to be reflected in the way that we think and talk about piracy. It may be a form of theft but it is also a backhanded form of customer feedback.

What audiences are telling creators through their actions is that content delivery is too slow, too expensive and too complicated.

The content industries need to work at fixing these problems. But equally they need to begin a conversation with audiences, explaining the problems and what they are doing about them.

They also need to understand the different audience segments and respond to them appropriately — not tar them all with the same black-and-white piracy brush.

Content creators in particular should take up this challenge. After all it’s their work, their livelihoods and their audiences.

The ScreenFutures research shows that people are listening.

David Court is Subject Leader, Screen Business at Australian Film, Television and Radio School; Annie Parnell is Festival Manager & Film Producer at Australian Film, Television and Radio School; Bridget Callow-Wright is Masters of Screen Business and Arts Student at Australian Film, Television and Radio School; Chloe Rickard is Head of Production @ Jungleboys at Australian Film, Television and Radio School; Ester Harding is Producer at Australian Film, Television and Radio School, and Peter Drinkwater is CEO of Cowlick Entertainment Group, Film Grit and marketing research agencies Screen Audience Research Australia (SARA) and House of Brand at Australian Film, Television and Radio School

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


  • id like to see the contrasting survey where they ask those who don’t pirate, why they don’t it would really only be valuable with a historic record to compare it to of course but it would be good to see what actually gets people off the pirate ship and how that compares to what those on the ship are saying

    • I quit pirating because I could finally afford a service (Netflix in my case) and also finally had access to an internet connection that could support it.

      I also rationalized that, while I don’t agree with the fact that I can’t get specifically what I want at US air time, that doesn’t mean I should steal it. Recently, I was unable to (without significant faffing around) acquire a model of longboard deck I wanted in Australia. It isn’t like I would just go out and steal it because I couldn’t get it legally….

  • peoples reasons will vary. Mine’s more complex than all of those… Convenience.

    If I buy from iTunes, other than being overpriced (for me at least), I can just download and play, right? No. It’s locked into the Apple ecosystem. I don’t really own it. It’s hard to use on my Android and WDTV devices.
    Why not buy the media? Because I don’t want to find then insert and remove the media.
    If you said I could buy any 6 month old movie for $5 without it being locked down, I would buy many movies.
    I’ve been given nothing but shitty options, the best being Netflix (which only suffers from choice).
    So, offer me a better option and I’ll pay.
    Truthfully though, I own many many movies. After paying twice (vhs to DVDs), I also became jaded.
    I think there’s a lot more than this article eludes to.

    • If I buy from iTunes, other than being overpriced (for me at least), I can just download and play, right? No. It’s locked into the Apple ecosystem. I don’t really own
      I used to have iPhones and iPads and I bought a number of things from iTunes which are now completely unavailable to me as an Android and Linux user. I buy stuff now from Google Play but who’s to say I’ll have access to them in 10 years time too?

  • There are lots of reasons people “pirate” movies, TV and music. One of the industries major flaws is its distribution strategy (not available in your country bollocks, or not released in your country for another 3 months).

    Hello media industry, we are now in a global economy, take Netflix as an example, here in Australia we do not get the same level of content as the US, why is this.

    In Australia we cannot access some films and music at all because again it is not available in our country.

    The high level of piracy in Australia is born out of frustration and anger that we are treated like second class citizens. It is not just media either, every tried buying certain Sony handycams in Australia, or simple things like a micro pin nailer.

  • Article seems to draw a false equivalence between wrong and illegal, and the study doesn’t really seem to differentiate in its questions, at least from the second hand account of it we’re given here. Ethics and Law are often not the same thing; selling unpasteurized milk is illegal too, but I don’t think many would call that ethically “wrong”.

  • I think most people would prefer to legally obtain their media, as long as the convenience factor and price is right. For example, there’s almost no point pirating music any more, services like Spotify have such a wide range that you can usually find almost everything you want on there. Netflix (region unlocked) has a fair bit of content, as long as you don’t need the latest and greatest. And both of those services require less time spent (finding, kicking off, and deleting old downloads) and disk space than the alternative.

    The biggest issue comes with popular, limited availability and expensive content like Game of Thrones. Way easier and cheaper to download it rather than jump through Foxtel’s hoops. It’s no coincidence that it’s one of the most illegally downloaded shows in existence.

    There’s a lesson in here for the content providers: People are willing to pay (but not overpay) for content, if it’s more convenient than the downloading alternative. Make it too hard/expensive for us, and we will find a way of getting it elsewhere.

  • Hasn’t this topic been done to death already? We already know why we pirate, what we need is a fair and proper legal alternative.

  • Who just labelled someone as an addict? Is that in the most recent DSM?
    I personally stopped that type of activity rather recently.

  • I have a theory based on my own experience. All the latest movies are crap, especially if you watch them from a ripped file downloaded.
    The reason I download is due to a lack of options when I feel like watching something, its easy, its there and its when I feel like watching.
    Even when I had Foxtel I was still downloading as the movies where crap and it was not on demand.

    Downloading has dropped off about 60-70% since I got Netflix (US version) This is because when I feel like sitting down and watch something I can always find something of interest.

    So my reason is a combination of boredom, on demand and content.

    I go to the cinema 1-2 per month for the big block movies.

  • I used to use Soulseek/DC++ like crazy. Since Spotify launched, the user base has been dwindling and pretty much the only people that remain on the userbase are pirates proper in my experience.

    Since Netflix launched myself (& friends) have had a dramatic reduction in illegally acquired materials as most of what we want to watch is on Netflix or we just don’t watch TV.

    The younger generations are moving away from scheduled programming and are buying Foxtel for background noise. I’ve said “Oh, I will watch it,” so many times, but I never actually did. I would just have it on for the white noise. Expensive, expensive white noise.

    I finally realised I didn’t need it as I only wanted to watch specific stuff when I felt like it, much like the rest of my generation and many others. Stressing if I’m going to be home on time to watch the new Hot Topic TV Show is not fun and is not something I’ve done since I was a kid and Beast Wars was on telly.

  • I would imagine the reasons & motivations fall under the same behaviour which leads some of us us to drink alcohol while underage, or consume illicit substances, or run that yellow light which is turning red, or speed for a few moments to overtake someone on the freeway, or roll through stop signs instead of coming to a complete stop, or jaywalk, or many many other things that people do which are against the law.

    These offenses, despite being illegal – are typically seen at the time to be harmless & with no one really being the victim. The consequences of most of the ones I listed above are made illegal because in the past people have become injured or killed as a result – despite this fact, people still offend because they know they’ll usually get away with it. Compare this to the people who pirate media, they see no victims at all & there’s even less visible consequence, let alone one that’s dangerous. Once the platform for purchasing the product becomes easier to achieve & for a reasonable price, people will simply turn to the better alternative.

  • I will stop downloading illegal copies when they start offering money back on tickets when the movie doesn’t live up to the advertising. ‘Best hit of summer’? etc etc, previews with footage that isn’t in the movie – that kind of thing is the reason I download first and then pay to see it later.

  • Sesame Street is moving to HBO. Could be the next most pirated TV Show in history behind GoT? hahaha

  • measured illegal downloading in Australia and compared it with the UK (and yes, Australians are bigger downloaders)…

    Rocket science… we also have historically had less available legal content.

  • I do it because bittorrent is by far the best supplier (regardless of legality) of digital content around.

    None currently match its range, speed, convenience, and quality. Nor price of course, although I’d be willing to pay for a service that successfully competed on other aspects of service.

  • Much the same. I quit pirating because it became easy and affordable to access content (Netflix). Sure, it doesn’t have EVERYTHING I want ALL of the time, but it has a reasonable amount of content for a reasonable price. For everything else, I’ll watch free-to-air or purchase from Google Play.

  • When movie company’s show they care about the movie going public and stop making movies like Jack and Jill and Fantastic 4 2015.

    Movies like that prove the movie company’s don’t care about money.

    The are still getting record profits every year.
    So its not like the are closing down.

    Last time i checked movies were art and art should be for everyone not just the people who can afford it.

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