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The Past, Present, and Future of Downloading Movies on the Internet

The movie rental store faced a perfect storm of occurrences that would begin the decline of your friendly neighborhood rental location. A declining economy, heavy debt loads, and especially the arrival of internet rental sites like Netflix completely changed how people viewed entertainment.  With easy access, no driving, extensive selection, and often instant viewing, downloading is now the preferred means of watching movies. 

As the prevalence of movie downloading has increased, so too has the confusion regarding what is and what is not legal use.  Where can you download movies?  Can you do it for free - and be legal?  It is helpful to take a look at how movie downloading started, where we are today, and where we might be in the future.

The Beginnings of Movie Downloading

The film industry very closely follows the music industry; in this case, movie downloading became prevalent a few years after the advent of music downloading and, of course, music piracy.  Back in 2004, sales and marketing research firm, NPD Group, found that the trend in online movies was following that of online music.  While only 0.3 percent of movie rentals and purchases were downloads, 80 percent of that group was male. 

NPD Music and Movie president, Russ Crupnick, said, "Looking at digital movie rentals so far this year, we're encountering definite echoes of early consumer patterns seen in the music industry."  Those similarities extended to piracy as well.  Nearly as long as movies have been made, pirates have been figuring out how to sell them off the market.  This was done with movie reels and with VHS tapes.  DVDs and the internet have just made it far easier and more convenient for the casual home pirate.  The first downloads were of "ripped" movies - which were created when people with camcorders recorded a movie in the theater.  The sound quality, as you would expect, was poor, but technological advances allowed for more sophisticated copies to be made.  Today, one of the problems with piracy is that it is hard to tell what is legal and what is not.  The quality makes the two indistinguishable.

Movie Downloading:  Where Are We Now?

It is impossible to discuss the state of the movie downloading industry without discussing piracy.  According to the International Intellectual Property Alliance reported in 2008, movie piracy cost the US some $1.3 billion, and the problem is far from a Hollywood phenomenon.  India's entertainment industry lost US$959 million and over a half a million jobs.  The piracy rate is said to be about 60 percent.

Film producer Mukesh Bhatt said, "Online copyright theft in India is growing rapidly.  Two separate reports last year placed India in the top ten countries worldwide for P2P infringements.  There is a community of internet users who view piracy as an activity without consequence...."

The movie industry appears to be following in the steps of the music industry and using lawsuits as a weapon to fight piracy.  This was often counterproductive for the music industry, and it proving to be so with film, because industry lawyers often targeted kids and the elderly, which didn't sit well with the general public.  It created the impression that the big music/movie industries were picking on the little people.

The Internet Piracy Prevention Industry launched a site called MiiVi aimed to catch illegal movie downloaders.  Visitors to the site are promised entire downloads, as well as the opportunity to install a program that allows "fast and easy downloading all in one great site."  But the owner of that "great" site is Media Defender, Inc., a leading provider of anti-piracy solutions," and the object is to catch would-be downloaders.

Along with illegal avenues, though, there are a great many legal alternatives.  Netflix is perhaps the most well-known, but there are several on-demand movie download sites, including Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, and Miro.  Nearly half of Netflix's millions of subscribers watch movies instantly through that site perfectly legally.  Hulu sees about 40 million unique visitors each month.  There are legal alternatives out there, some of which are free.

What's Next for Movie Downloading Industry?

What is next for movie downloads?  Convenience.  Anything that gives the customer what they want, when they want it.  This could be as simple as Amazon's on-demand viewing, in which a customer purchases a movie or television show for a few dollars and has a limited amount of time in which to watch it before it becomes inactive.  Whatever the arrangement, the growth of downloads and decline of DVDs is expected to continue.  As new technology becomes available, options will expand.  Apple TV, for instance, allows users to rent movies and stream Netflix. 

Piracy, too, remains a foreseeable part of the future as the industry struggles with billions of lost dollars. The response of different nations around the world to piracy varies.  In the UK, for instance, the Digital Economy Bill was passed early in 2010 and gives the government increased power to fend off pirates.  Repeat offenders can face the loss of their internet usage as the ISPs have been drawn into the fray and made to cooperate.  Other countries are pursuing such measures.

It is also possible that our collective attention span will shrink and we can tune in to YouTube for our 15 minute movie fix.  Even if that is not likely, it is very likely that more of us will be watching online.  Will we be watching legally?

If the movie industry continues to follow the music industry, we may see the growth of legal services that offer reasonable prices or subscription-based viewing.  Legal alternatives, such as those provided by Netflix and iTunes, do a lot to curb piracy - why be illegal when it is cheap and just as easy to be legal? That the film industry can eradicate piracy is virtually impossible, but making alternatives the norm is a good start. 

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