Which is Better, Original DVD or Pirate MP4?

For a long time it has been obvious that in all cases anti-piracy technologies discourage purchases and in many cases encourage piracy. I first discovered the significance of this in about 1991 when I attended a public lecture by a senior employee of Borland and a member of the audience claimed that the Borland product he bought didn’t function correctly due to anti-piracy measures. The Borland employee firmly stated that Borland did not use anti-copying technology on any of it’s products, didn’t have any plans to do so, and the problem in question must have been caused by something else. Of all the hostile questions that were asked, this was the only one that caused the speaker to appear agitated so it was obviously an issue that was considered to be important within Borland.

In the late 80’s anti-piracy measures were mostly based around creating floppy disks that couldn’t be easily copied (violations of various aspects of the disk formatting standards). This meant that you couldn’t make a backup copy of the data, so it wasn’t uncommon for people to seek pirate copies of their commercial software for daily use to avoid wearing out their valuable original floppy disks. Then the dongle was invented and people who bought software sometimes sought pirate copies so that they could use their printer and their commercial software without having to change plugs on their PC. But in those cases the benefits to uncrippled software to the users were small.

Now a large part of the battle on copy protection concerns DVDs. If you had a DVD of a recent movie and an MP4 which would you rather watch? Would you prefer to be forced to watch some anti-piracy rubbish for a couple of minutes at the start of the movie (with fast-forward disabled) or would you prefer to just start watching it? Would you prefer to be able to pre-program the sections of the movie that you watch (as some parents desire to skip the sex and/or violence in movies for their teenagers) or would you prefer to be forced to watch the movie straight-through with only a manual fast-forward to skip sections? Would you prefer to have a DVD that can’t be played properly on many (most?) computers because of the CSS encoding or an MP4 that plays on everything from PCs to mobile phones without an issue? Would you rather have 100 movies in the spare space on your laptop hard drive when you travel and 1000 movies on your desktop system or the much smaller number of boxed DVDs that you can store? I think that in most cases a pirate MP4 will give a better experience than a DVD.

So the question is, why pay for a DVD when in most cases you get a lesser experience than you will get from a MP4 file downloaded by bittorrent?

One reason for buying the DVD is to support the film industry. But I doubt that such a profitable industry will get much sympathy in today’s economy. Another reason is the morality, some people consider piracy to be theft (it isn’t – by definition theft requires that for at least a moment the property be completely in the possession of the thief) and therefore avoid it.

One technical reason for buying a DVD is the fact that it may have multiple languages supported, it will have subtitles, it may have an audio track with the creators giving a commentary, and it may have extra scenes that were cut from the main release. I believe that work on adding subtitles to the video file formats is a work in progress, so it’s only a matter of time before the DVD rips include all this extra data.

Really the content creators should focus on making a product that meets the needs of users and that they want to pay for. Pirating books is technically possible, but almost no-one does it. Some successful authors such as Charles Stross freely publish significant parts of their work and Cory Doctorow freely publishes all his work in electronic form. Books just work well, they meet the needs of users and people want to buy them. Sure they can sell them second hand, lend them to other people, and it’s technically possible to pirate them, but they remain profitable. On my documents blog I have a page of links to free short stories that I liked [1] and a page of links to free books [2]. It seems to me that creators of other copyright content should consider how they can be of service to their customers.

We are all familiar with corporations and misguided individuals who get whiny about the supposed losses due to piracy. Bruce Everiss has unfortunately joined this trend and demanded the disconnection of Internet users based on unproven accusations of game piracy [3]. I don’t know whether the game buying experience sucks as badly as the DVD buying experience, but based on the reports of locked-down consoles that have to be cracked before they run Linux I expect that the modern game industry is doing at least as badly as the movie industry. They need to provide things that users want!

One thing to note is that a Windows or console game player who uses pirate games will probably buy some games at some future time, while someone like me who uses free software both by principle and because it gives a better user experience will probably never pay for a game (I haven’t got time to play all the free games so I probably wouldn’t even buy a Linux game).

20 comments to Which is Better, Original DVD or Pirate MP4?

  • Anselm Lingnau

    With the games consoles, you need to crack the console before installing Linux because you’re really not supposed to run »unofficial« games — presumably because the manufacturer subsidises the console out of the sales of games. If people buy games consoles just to run, say, Linux on them and never buy any proper games, the manufacturer incurs a net loss. (Rumour has it that Microsoft used to subsidise the Xbox to the tune of $100 per unit. The last thing Microsoft wanted at the time was for Xboxen to be turned into Linux boxes wholesale.)

    On the other hand, with DVDs it’s usually (region coding notwithstanding) not the DVD player that you need to crack, it’s the DVDs themselves — at least if you want to do non-standard, suspicious, *forbidden* things like watching the movie on your Linux PC. Slightly simplifying, this is because the DVD players come from China while the movies come from Hollywood. The Hollywood people don’t really care what sort of hardware you watch your DVDs on as long as you buy the DVDs from them in the first place. Instead, they’re worried that people will copy the DVDs and give them to all their friends (or anyone on the Internet) for free, so they try to lock things down preferably to the point that you need the actual DVD to hand to be able to get at the content. (We all know how well they actually succeed in doing so in real life, but that’s neither here nor there.)

    I tend to buy or borrow my DVDs, but I also find it extremely tedious to have to ignore the anti-piracy clips that can’t be skipped. I don’t go for the MPEG4-on-BitTorrent thing but I presume that the first thing a would-be copier cuts out before putting a ripped copy of a DVD up on BitTorrent is these warnings. This means that I, as a legitimate customer, am constantly being insulted by the studios insinuating that I would otherwise avail myself of their stuff without paying (I’m trying to avoid the loaded word »steal« here), while the people who from the studios’ point of view really ought to be admonished don’t get to see the warnings at all. This is a distasteful state of affairs that the studios can only afford because I’m too chicken to download their stuff from the ‘Net for free. My bad.

  • I very happily paid for a copy of the Linux release of Quake3, the one in the fancy tin case. My intention was to encourage idsoftware (and others) to do more of this. To this day it is the only PC game I have ever bought.

    I find it quite offensive when supporters of free software also happily pirate commercial content, whether it be games, DVDs or otherwise. Licenses are licenses. If you respect one you should respect them all. Not just the ones that suit your purposes.

    Someone told me recently that the Denon DVD players ignore all that “can’t skip” crap. It would be worth looking into if DVDs weren’t such crappy quality (and they are!) compared to Blu-Ray.

    I don’t think I’ll buy many more DVDs, probably just old films that show no discernable benefit from the step up to BD. Notable exceptions here include some of Stanley Kubrick’s films. “2001: A Space Odyssey” on BD is stunning, and “A Clockwork Orange” was fantastic also

  • By that definition of “theft” perhaps, but there’s another way to look at it.

    the act of stealing.

    -verb (used with object)
    to take without permission or right.

    So downloading a pirated movie is theft, because you are stealing something which doesn’t belong to you and of which you have no right to have – the content of the video.

    By your definition, it would be OK for me to write down your credit card (or bank account) information and purchase something with it. Your credit card was never in my possession, but I think you’d agree that it was still theft.

    Anyhow, I actually only watch DVD’s and I start them with the TV off to bypass all that anti-piracy rubbish while I get a drink.

  • Felipe Sateler

    I don’t know in Australia, but over here (Chile) books are readily bought pirated. Of course, the quality of the printing and paper is less satisfying, but they are sold nevertheless. Part of it is due to the elevated price of books (I happen to own a book bought in the USA for about 10-15 US dollars, and the same book here costs over 100 USD).
    But I agree with your argument. There is a point where buying the pirate version is not really worth it anymore. And when the pirate version gives better quality (as in satisfying the customer, not technical quality) than the original, that is a sure recipe for creating a pirate community!

  • etbe

    Anselm: Being limited to only “official” games for a console is not a benefit for the user. If MS had a problem in producing a console for a price that the users can afford then their solution is to develop better technology to lower the price – or remove some features. Making a business model based on telling someone that they are buying something when they are really renting is not the solution.

    I would like to watch DVDs I purchased in Europe, the US, and Australia on a whim and on the same hardware. I don’t think that is asking much. But current hardware makes that difficult.

    You could of course buy a DVD to have the right to use the content, and then download the content from the net for a better viewing experience.

    John: I’ve also bought Linux games in the past. But when you look at the quality of games like Wesnoth and Freecraft, they may not be as good in some ways as some of the commercial games but they are playable, addictive, and can waste more time than most of us have to spare.

    Chris: My dictionary (dict theft on Debian/Lenny) says:
    To constitute theft there must be a taking without the owner’s consent, and it must be unlawful or felonious; every part of the property stolen must be removed, however slightly, from its former position; and it must be, at least momentarily, in the complete possession of the thief.

    If you steal some money from someone then you have completely removed it from it’s former position (IE the rightful owner’s bank account).

    Also note that copyright is supposed to end (the US practice of periodically extending the term is merely used to bypass the US constitution). When copyright ends the data should be freely available to everyone. I should be able to legally watch all DVDs without paying by merely waiting 100 years or so.

    Felipe: The pricing is certainly an issue here. One thing to note is that new release DVDs exceed $30 in price in Australia – the low end of the price range of a hard-cover novel and the high end of the price range of a paperback novel. Reading a novel that I buy will take at least 4 hours compared to 90 mins for a DVD. So the ratio of money spent to entertainment time is more than twice as good for the novel. If new DVDs cost $10 (giving the same cost per hour of entertainment as novels) then probably there would be less piracy.

    How do books cost $100 in Chile? Is that for Chilean translations? Is that import duties? Or is that just the effective cost when comparing different costs of living?

  • I’m not sure what the Debian dictionary is, but that seems like a highly specific meaning of the word.

    One could steal someone’s idea, an unpublished book, someone’s copyright on an image, an algorithm and any amount of other non-tangible items without it ever being entirely in the possession of the person taking it.

    Your definition states that it must be in the complete possession of the thief, however in the stealing money analogy the cash was never in the person’s possession at any point in time. So therefore by that definition it still isn’t stealing.

    If I took bonnie++ and released it as connie++ under my own license without attributing it to you, I’m stealing. Even though by that definition I’m not, because it never actually left your possession.


  • etbe

    Chris: I believe that the definition I used is a close match for that which is used by the legal system when prosecuting someone for theft. That may be regarded as a highly specific meaning of the word, but when it comes to the definition of criminal acts I think that the legal system has the authoritative definition.

    Stealing someone’s idea is generally used as a turn of phrase, it has as much in common with theft as saying “a penny for your thoughts” involves the transfer of a unit of the Queen’s currency. If however you were to use the phrase “stealing an idea” to mean rushing to the patent office first then that would actually involve the entire possession of rights to the idea – but it is however legal. Just as I could release a movie with a plot substantially similar to a Hollywood blockbuster, if my movie came out first I could claim copyright infringement and the onus would be on the other party to prove that they were not infringing (there is precedent in this regard in the music industry).

    The balance of my bank account is in my possession (according to law – the bank merely holds it on my behalf). If you steal 1 cent from my account then you will be charged with the theft of one entire cent, not theft of the entire balance (most of which was not moved).

    Renaming and releasing software in the hypothetical example you give is quite similar to things that happen all the time. Harald Welte seems to have made a hobby of taking legal action against companies who do such things. While people may call such companies “thieves” as a slang term, they don’t get accused of theft in court.

    The Debian dictionary is what you get from “apt-get install dict dictd dict-gcide”.

  • scimmia

    look at wu ming foundation, an italian semi-anonymous writers’ collective.
    Everything they wrote is on their page, freely downloadable and enjoyable.
    They wrote also an essai showing how this free distribution improved their selling. (Not sure the essai in avaiable in english, too)

  • “I believe that work on adding subtitles to the video file formats is a work in progress, so it’s only a matter of time before the DVD rips include all this extra data.”

    Subtitle support have been here for a very long time, and with better quality and features than DVD subtitles. DVD subtitles are bitmap files, with only 1 bit of transparency, that are displayed as an overlay. First software subtitles formats (like .srt which is still very widespread) already allow for a much better subtitle quality and readability.

    OGM and MKV video formats added support for multiple audio and subtitle channels in the same video file, allowing for on-the-fly switching like DVDs can achieve.

    The latest subtitle formats (like SSA, which can also be included in MKV files) include *lots* of effects, including font and color selection, shadows, outlines, rotation, hard positioning, fading, filling… The experience bears absolutely no comparison with what DVDs or even Blu-ray discs can achieve. Unfortunately software support for these effects is not very widespread, but at least mplayer supports all of them.

  • Ahh, I see. People who obtain movies by means other than via legitimate purchasing are not “stealing,” but “infringing copyright.”

    Fair enough.

    The point about the money was that the definition states that it is only theft if: “every part of the property stolen must be removed, however slightly, from its former position; and it must be, at least momentarily, in the complete possession of the thief.”

    So if I take money out of your bank account, it has to be completely in my possession in order to be considered theft.

    However, if I use your credit card to purchase something, that money goes out of your account straight to the supplier. It would never be in my possession, not even for any moment in time :-)


  • Neil McGovern

    I used to think that piracy also wasn’t theft, until it was explained to me another way.

    The producer, by copyright, has an exclusive right to distribute and control copies of their work. By copying it without their permission, you permanently deprive them of that right. Once the copy has taken place, it can’t be uncopied. So it’s not the actual movie/song/whatever being stolen, it’s their right to exclusively distribute.

  • Anonymous

    I think you’ve missed one of the key “advantages” of DVDs over downloaded copies: you won’t get sued.

    For a lot of people that represents the only reason: chance of getting caught.

    In my case, I’d find it rather convenient to download the video of several DVDs I own, simply because they won’t rip properly.

  • Felipe Sateler

    It is just nominal cost. The book in question is Dawkins Ancestor’s Tale. You can see in Amazon a list price of USD 16.95[1], and in a relatively large chilean bookshop the list price is CLP 49,920[2]. At a current exchange rate of 496 CLP/USD, it becomes USD 100.6. Note that price level here in Chile is much lower than in the US or Australia.

    I figure that since the spanish translation is less widespread than the english version, it can carry an additional cost. And I think that there is no longer a book-specific tax (although there has been some lobby to remove VAT from books). I believe the main issue here is merely market size. Not that many people buy books, so the market is small and economies of scale are not reached. If you have to bring just a few copies of a book, it will probably be expensive.

    [2] <- In spanish, though

  • ZombB

    “I believe that work on adding subtitles to the video file formats is a work in progress, so it’s only a matter of time before the DVD rips include all this extra data.”

    Handbrake supports multiple audio channels, selective subtitles and chaptermarkers for mkv containers allready. In substance today there is really no difference between a dvd rip and an original dvd except that the size of a rip will be 25% of the size of the original. The subjective image quality will be the same with H.264.

  • etbe

    Np237: Thanks for that information, it’s very interesting. Mplayer was already my favourite video player so now I just need some suitable data. If you could recommend some good free French videos that are subtitled then I would be interested in watching them.

    Chris: I think that having my money moved to the supplier of some goods that you desire counts as it being in your possession.

    Neil: You can always rm the file. Note that copyright is not an absolute right either, there are exclusions such as fair use/dealing.

    Anon: Fair point, obey the copyright laws and you are less likely to be sued. But the point of this post is about the quality of the experience and whether it encourages piracy. I can’t imagine them ever suing enough people to make much of an impact on the piracy.

    Felipe: I’m confused, you say “that price level here in Chile is much lower than in the US or Australia” and note that the exchange rate makes the book be $US100. Is there some sort of artificial currency exchange rate that causes this? Or is everything in Chile really expensive? Perhaps you could write a detailed blog post about this and provide the URL in a comment here.

    ZombB: Thanks for that information. If I feel the need to rip DVDs I will try out Handbrake.

  • Neil McGovern

    Russell: But you can’t unwatch/listen to it :) But agreed, yes, there’s plenty of fair use clauses. It’s a shame that the studios also don’t recognise that DRM doesn’t stop piracy and simply harms people who want to give them money. Treating your customer base as criminals isn’t usually the best business plan I’ve seen.

  • Felipe Sateler

    etbe: Sorry for the very late reply, but I got sidetracked by other stuff.
    By price level I mean that living in Chile is much cheaper than leaving in Australia or the USA. Any given (nominal) salary will give you a better purchasing power in Chile than in Australia or USA. However, this is the overall price level: food, commutes, accommodation, etc[1]. Specific items, such as books or technological gadgets, may be more expensive than in the USA or Australia. Which means that, for a Chilean, paying US$100 for a book is more expensive than for an Australian.

    Which (back to the original point) makes buying pirated books much more attractive.

    [1] I cannot get a precise quote on this, but I have lived in Sydney, and food, commute and accommodation are quite expensive by Chilean standards.

  • etbe

    Felipe: I will note that Sydney is expensive by most Australian standards. Lots of things in Sydney are 50% more expensive than I would pay in Melbourne. But that is probably nothing compared to the price differences you are considering.

    I just used to search for hotel rooms in Santiago, they have some options for around $70US ($80AU) for a 3-star room while the rates for a 3-star hotel in Melbourne and Sydney in Australia are about $110AU. So it seems that by that metric Chile is not much cheaper than Australia, although part of that may be due to Wotif catering for people from countries like Australia – I could negotiate my own good deals with Australian hotels if Wotif failed me but for reservations in Chile I have to take what I’m offered.

    I may still be missing your point. Is there some sort of artificial control on exchange rates that leads to comparative advantage here?

  • Felipe Sateler

    I think we are talking past each other here. There is no artificial control on exchange rates. Sometimes markets develop differently in different circumstances. In Chile, basic needs (food, transport and accommodation[1]) seem to be cheaper than in Australia. However, less basic items, like technological gadgets and books seem to be more expensive here. This causes pirated books to be more attractive, since original books are so expensive.

    When a book costs over 100 times the price of a public transport ticket, one is more likely to look for (illegal) alternatives than when the price is only 10 times more. Which is why book piracy is pretty common here in Chile, and not so much in Australia.

    [1] Perhaps something is being lost in translation here. By accommodation I mean a permanent flat/house, as opposed to hotels.