To leave Long John with no limb and no silver

On the high seas of the Internet a fierce battle unfolds as the film fraternity battles online film buccaneers. Kavitha Shanmugam reports

  • Published 28.08.16

Rajinikanth's Kabali appeared online within hours of its theatre release despite an injunction from the Madras High Court restraining 169 Internet service providers (ISPs) from providing access to 225 "rogue" websites.

On Wednesday, following a plea by Balaji Motion Pictures, producer of A Flying Jatt, the Madras High Court directed ISPs to block 830 websites. The Hrithik Roshan-starrer Mohenjo Daro was released on August 12. Taking a lesson from Kabali and its ilk, UTV, which produced the film, decided not to have any pre-release screenings. "This was one way to avoid any leaks," says director Ashutosh Gowariker.

Online piracy has become so endemic that no film big or small can escape its plunder and loot.

"We have asked for cyber cells manned by law enforcing agencies dedicated to the fight and the Centre has recently written to all the state governments to set it up," says Kulmeet Makkar, CEO of Film & Television Producers Guild of India Ltd, a body representing Bollywood producers.

The film industry contributes Rs 50,000 crores to the economy and supports a workforce of 1.8 million, according to the Motion Picture Distributors Association (India) Pvt. Ltd or MPDA, the India office of the Motion Picture Association of America. "Content theft negatively impacts profitability resulting in less investment capital," says Uday Singh, managing director of MPA, India office.

"The Indian film industry loses around INR 18,000 crores and some 60,000 jobs every year because of piracy, says Singh, quoting a 2013 article in WIPO Magazine (the journal of the World Intellectual Property Organization).

With so much at stake, filmmakers, distributors and actors are getting together to come up with more biting measures.

The usual practice of getting advance John Doe orders and using them to block rogue websites by taking down uniform resource locators or URLs are just not enough.

Recently, the Delhi High Court banned 73 websites that were illegally streaming "pirated" videos of cricket matches. Reason: URLs pop up again after a few tweaks.

A website in Tamil Nadu was blocked when it challenged Kabali producer Kalaipuli Thanu that it would make his film available online a day before the official release. Not only did it reappear; it had a link thrown in - how to bypass an ISP block.

A combative Telugu industry teamed up with MPA in June to form the Telangana Intellectual Property Crime Unit or Tipcu. Headed by the CID-SP, Telangana, it will work with the film industry, provide it with a list of infringing websites, share intelligence on pirate syndicates and block high risk infringing links, websites, hosting and streaming sites.

"We have adopted global practices like choking ad revenue flow on which these websites rely and reducing Internet speed. We will send notices and get the ISP to suspend their services," says Rajkumar Akella, chairman of the Telangana Anti-Piracy Cell. Users will also be deterred with pop-up notices and penal actions.

Aiplex is a Bangalore-based anti-piracy firm. Besides acquiring restraining orders and partnering with payment gateways, ad agencies and advertisers to withdraw support to infringing websites, it sends Digital Millennium Copyright Act notifications to infringers and hosting service providers located outside India. "We also build a few thousand fake URLs and upload them on forum websites with the message, 'Piracy kills and please watch the movie in theatres'," says Girish N., managing director of Aiplex.

Prakash Nathan, director of Mumbai-based Eagle Eye Entertainment and a release specialist, calls for eagle-eye vigilance in post-production houses, sound studios and during distribution. "A 2K encrypted distribution format, which is Digital Cinema Initiatives compliant, is most robust," adds Nathan.

The Tamil film industry has filed a writ against the government of India, making it responsible for ISPs. "The government gives licences to the ISPs and their agreement says the flow of infringing copyright content on their highway is not permitted. Why don't they take action against them?" asks Venkat Subba, media consultant with the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce. The case is pending in court.

Rajesh Chharia, president of the New Delhi-based Internet Service Providers Association is belligerent. "The lacuna is in their [filmmakers] security. They are rushing to courts to get injunctions against us, but we say, secure your own home. We are told to block 12,000 URLs at a time, that is unproductive work. Bandwidth quality is compromised," he says.

Chharia says the law enforcement agency should nab those who upload the movie first. "We will co-operate with the IP (Internet protocol) addresses. Block the server from where it was uploaded originally," says Chharia, who claims ISPs are planning to approach the court on this issue.

Producers of Tamil film Joker have emblazoned their bank account numbers, IFSC code et al, on the film poster with the request that those watching pirated versions of the film credit to their accounts the ticket price they feel the film deserves. They claim they will use the proceeds to build toilets for the poor.

Akella has another idea. "Why don't ISPs making profits from our movie downloads set up a redressal cell and work with the film industry?" In the meantime, the Tamil film industry is contemplating offering new films on mobiles. Asks Subba, "We have 1 crore viewers abroad, so why not create an official alternate revenue platform with a password access to defeat online piracy?"

The forces are swelling. New knives are out. The bugle has been sounded. Long John Silver, be warned, your stolen treasures are under the cross hairs.