Czech online film sharing startup faces sceptical industry

Photo: Kristýna Maková

A new film sharing project that has just been launched in the Czech Republic hopes to become a game-changer in distributing movies on the internet. The project, entitled 31s, works in a way similar to illegal file sharing – but offers film fans a chance to pay for the content they download from the web. The start-up project has been backed by some players in the film industry – but others, including anti-piracy campaigners, remain highly sceptical.

Pepe Rafaj,  photo: archive of Pepe Rafaj
In a video message posted on the website, the author of the project Pepe Rafaj appeals to film buffs to “watch films right”. Film fans, says Mr Rafaj, now have a chance to pay for films that download from the site, or have illegally downloaded in the past.

Film producers, meanwhile, can get at least some money from people who would otherwise watch their movies for free, and those who pirate films and offer them for download can now actually make money doing it. I asked Pepe Rafaj about how it all comes together.

“We believe the final product of the film industry is not a film copy but emotions. That’s what we sell. We sell proofs of payment – you can buy a licence for movies which you downloaded in the past illegally.

“We found out there are about three million people in the Czech Republic who download movies every month. We can’t say that every one of them wants to pay but we think that between 10 and 20 percent would like to pay.

So you are trying to convince people that downloading for free is not fair?

“Yes, exactly.”

Why do you think these people will listen to you? They have been doing it for some time now – what makes you think they will be open to this kind of argument?

“Because now, they don’t have an opportunity to pay. The project 31s just offers a way of doing it legally, or doing it right. The technology is much faster than law. The legislation now in force regulating this is from the 1960s.”

The project’s name – 31s – refers to a 31-second long message that is to be included at the start and the end of every movie offered for download. The message contains instructions on how to pay 25 crowns, or 1.3 US dollars – per film. Users can further distribute these films through programmes usually used for illegal file sharing such as BitTorrent and others.

Photo: Kristýna Maková
“As member of our community, you can become a co-distributor. You download a legal film copy from our website with the ‘Watch it Right’ message, and you can upload it anywhere. That’s all legal. The message contains a QR code indentifying the film and the member of the community which will then receive part of every payment made by the viewers.”

About half of the fee goes to film producers or right owners, the rest would be split among the co-distributors and the 31s project.

The fact that 31s seeks to involve people who regularly download movies illegally could become a breakthrough in online film sharing. Mr Rafaj has so far gained the trust of some people in the film industry including the Oscar-winning director and producer Jan Svěrák who made some of his films available through 31s.

The website now contains only a few dozen titles – most of them by Jan Svěrák – but could get new additions from the Czech National Film Archive, a state-run institution. Its director is Michal Bregant.

Mr Rafaj’s project would not legalize online illegal content. That’s my biggest concern. So I said that we could try it, and we could offer a very limited number of films. It’s his duty to clear the rights, and we will work on it. For us it’s an experiment that is promising and I’m optimistic.”

Mr Bregant has in fact agreed to provide one film – a popular Czech fairytale – for a trial period. If the system works as desired, the archive would then increase its input. The film archive’s director says he particularly appreciated the attempt to include pirates in the project.

“What I like is that Mr Rafaj does not want to fight pirating. I think that’s a lost cause. We need to find a positive approach to that and should not waste our energy fighting against something that’s much more powerful than we are.”

Michal Bregant,  photo: Helena Petáková
But others are less optimistic. The Prague-based project Doc Alliance is a partnership of several European documentary film festivals. For seven years now, it has been offering documentary movies for online streaming and for download. Diana Tabakov is in charge of acquisitions for Doc Alliance.

“I think it’s a very interesting project in that it actually works with mechanisms that are already effective. They are using platforms for illegal film distribution, and it reacts to the natural behaviour of the audience.

“Also, very good is the idea of sharing and of co-distributors which reflects the nature of the internet where people share things among themselves. So I think that’s a very interesting starting point.”

In Doc Alliance’s experience, online streaming rather than downloads, is the most effective method of making people pay for films. Ms Tabakov also says that it will practically impossible for 31s to distribute new films and will instead have to focus on older movies. And that will do little to curb online pirates who target new films immediately after their release.

“It could be a bit of problem that they won’t be able to work on new and currently released films. This could work for older films and those films in the past that people are still interested in. But it will still be slightly smaller group of people. So I don’t think this could become a revolutionary project that would change or stop online piracy.”

Pepe Rafaj himself is member of the Czech Association of Film Producers. The group discussed the project this week but failed to reach agreement on whether they will support it or not. The Czech Anti-Piracy Union, meanwhile, is quite open. Markéta Prchalová is the union’s director.

Markéta Prchalová,  photo: Czech Television
“We don’t think the project does not provide a sustainable system of online film distribution which would bring relevant revenues to copyright holders. We think the project rather naively ignores the basic structure of copyright and distribution rights, and does not address various issues including territorial licensing, and so on.

“But the main problem we see is that the project is aimed at movies which have already passes through the distribution cycle. That means it can be used for relatively small number of programmes, and provides no guarantees against unauthorized distribution of films whose authors decide not to join the project.”

The anti-piracy group also questions viewers’ willingness to pay voluntarily, according to Ms Prchalová, who says the biggest problem is the fact that some storage sites which backed the project keep violating copyright laws.

“We do take issue with the fact that several entities are joining the project whose business is based on abuse of copyright. We are certainly happy that the largest Czech storage site which provides access to a huge volume of illegal copies of audiovisual works is now considering joining a legal distribution system. But we cannot ignore the fact they are not planning to curb the distribution of the pirate copies. That’s a major problem for us.”

The author of 31s Pepe Rafaj believes that despite the scepticism, the project will take off – and not just in the Czech Republic. He says there is no critical number of users that need to join to make it profitable. And he has big plans – 31s has already approached some international film distributors to make their films available as well.