History of Movie Piracy

By Sheryl Butterfield

Updated September 22, 2017

History of Movie Piracy
i Anti-Piracy Sleeve Photo by Cesar Bojorquez

The Motion Picture Association (MPA) defines movie piracy as "the unauthorized taking, copying or use of copyrighted materials without permission." The history of movie piracy is tangled up in ever-advancing technologies. Video equipment, DVDs and the Internet have all played a part in obtaining and selling films illegally. Movie piracy causes extreme economic loss in countries all over the world. International, federal and state laws exist to protect consumers, companies and artists from copyright theft.


Movie piracy started with pirates using camcorders to copy movies shown in a theater, a process known as "ripping." The sound, via the camera's microphone, was of poor quality because audience noises were also recorded. These cam rips were put on the Internet, usually after a film premiere.

Seeking improved audio quality, pirates began to synchronize cam rips with a second recording. These cam/telesyncs use professional mics with no audience in the theater. They are captured directly from the theater's sound system or from FM radio transmissions.

Another common movie pirate method is copying screener DVDs. Movie companies often release promotional copies of a film for critics and industry people to review in advance. Pirates remove the Promotional Copy Only message and release it as a DVD rip. The digital age has ushered in a plethora of ways to steal. Currently, television connections provide the most common way to pirate movies. Subscription TV, digital stream and HDTV rips are becoming more popular with the advancement of satellite and high-definition TV (HDTV). HDTV quality can be better than DVD quality.


Counterfeit DVD Photo by Future Atlas

Movie piracy hurts a country's economy, consumers and movie industry. The International Intellectual Property Alliance estimated that as of 2008, the United States has lost $1.3 billion (USD) from movie piracy acts. The movie industry, plus home video and television programming, are huge components of American economic assets.

The U.S. motion picture industry has established a trade system with other countries that operates in a balanced way. Vast numbers of workers are needed to film each movie. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) estimates that "a major movie on location contributes around $200,000 per day to local economies" due to studio employees using local businesses. Piracy detracts from these economic relationships. Distributors, theaters, video rental companies and pay-per-view providers all lose money.

Consumer Effects

Consumers are hurt inadvertently by movie piracy. Worldwide, movies are a source of entertainment. When pirates drain money from the movie industry and all its peripheral industries, film quality may become compromised. What begins as a valuable product becomes too expensive to produce. The MPAA recommends that consumers stand up against counterfeit street-sold DVDs and Internet theft.

Expert Insight

The internationally revered American entertainment industry contributed nearly $52 billion (USD) to the national economy in 2008. Movie industry experts have stated that without piracy as an obstacle, studios could add even larger sums of money to the economy. Experts such as Darcy Antonellis, Warner Bros. president of technical operations, admit that technology growth only furthers movie piracy. Illegal file-sharing is the downside to increased broadband services.


NYC Street DVDs Photo by University of Toronto Arts Collective

Not every movie download off the Internet is illegal. The MPAA encourages consumers and educators to use legal download sites. Such sites approved by the MPAA include Cinema Now, IFilm, Movieflix and Movielink. The MPAA believes that people are less likely to disregard copyright laws when they fully understand artist rights.


All movie watchers should be aware of consequences. Laws are in place to protect copyrighted material. Downloading a movie from an unauthorized source and selling counterfeit DVDs are serious crimes. Law enforcement deems copyrighted movies as valuable as any other stolen property. The movie industry has the right to take movie pirates to court.


Education on copyright laws may decrease peer-to-peer file sharing. Larger issues, such as organized crime involvement, are more difficult to monitor. The FBI houses a cyber division in Los Angeles. The agents regularly share information with movie studio representatives to discuss strategies against piracy. Anti-piracy operations staffs employed by MPAA and movie studios are devising ways to educate and litigate. One recent idea is to address piracy occurring over Internet service provider (ISP) systems. Strides are being made, but ISPs are sometimes concerned about their systems being slowed down by the monitoring.