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Science

Watch It Right! Can people be persuaded to pay for downloading films?

Illegal downloading poses a great challenge in the digital age. One Czech film producer has launched a new initiative to legalize pirate distribution to help the film industry recoup at least some of its losses.

The illegal download of films and television opens a debate on free access to information and intellectual property. But wherever you stand, it's clear that illegal downloading won't just go away - so the question now is how to deal with it.

"We've decided to change the DNA of pirate distribution of movies," says Pepe Rafaj, a film producer and IT manager based in Prague. "We've put the virus of legality into the system. We're trying to change some part of this system of distribution," Rafaj told DW.

It's a big ask. An estimated 3 million people in the Czech Republic regularly download movies from file-sharing sites - in a country with a population of 10 million. Rafaj is now asking them to pay - just a bit, a token amount - for what many people see as a public service. Otherwise, he says, it may be impossible to make new content in the future.

Brilliant technology, poor legislation

"The problem is huge - it's part of the zeitgeist," Rafaj said. "The technology of distribution is so brilliant it's outpacing the legislation," he added.

In October, Rafaj launched a new online community called "31s," with the slogan "Watch It Right!" He hopes to revolutionize the way people watch films and TV online - not just in the Czech Republic, but around the world.

Pepe Rafaj

Rafaj is banking on Czech citizens' desire for a clean conscience

The system is simple enough. You search for a movie, either on established file-sharing sites or the 31s website, for films tagged with the label 31s. That brings up a QR code; snap that with your mobile phone and it'll open up a payment box.

For a contribution starting at 1 euro, you can download or stream a fully legal, licensed copy of the film. You can also obtain licences of films you've already downloaded.

The downloader can then share that film with friends; provided they themselves purchase their own license. If that happens, the original downloader will get 7 percent of the proceeds.

Everyone does it

"Everyone downloads movies. My wife downloads movies. I download movies. Even my mother - OK, not my mother," Rafaj told DW. "But everyone downloads movies illegally. And I've decided to change it, because I don't like it."

Mikulas Ferjencik of the Czech Pirate Party said they'd be happy people voluntarily pay the authors for content on the Internet. "We even have no problem with sites where you pay for a login then you get access to the content," Ferjencik said.

The party recently garnered 2.6 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections - this represents almost double the number of votes won by the new party set up by supporters of the current president.

"Where the Pirate Party starts to have a problem with the current system is where everyone is being spied on just because some authors - or usually it's the publishers - want to keep the business model of the past in the age of the Internet," Ferjencik explained.

Pirates are skeptical

Mikulas Ferjencik

Ferjencik said the Pirates aren't against voluntary payment schemes

But the question is whether this can succeed. Ferjencik told DW he thinks 31s has the potential to become a trend. "If they do it right, and have a good brand, people might do it just because it's cool," he said.

"But if they try to say - 'you have to use our site if you want to feel better' - I don't know. I doubt that would work," Ferjencik added.

At present, 31s is running as a beta version; there are just 15 films available to download, mostly Czech movies, with a couple of Hollywood blockbusters thrown in. So far around 1,000 people have used the system since the 31s site was launched in October.

Rafaj says he's in talks with the Czech Film Archive to massively expand the collection.

Sea change required

Rafaj and his colleagues believe there must be a philosophical sea change in the way we think about downloading and sharing online content. The status quo, they say, is depriving proper compensation to hundreds of thousands of people who make the films and TV series we enjoy. They believe this is an unsustainable model.

But it remains to be seen whether their solution will work, granted that it's based on the moral principle that people will want to pay for a licensed copy of a film - when they could just go to their favorite file-sharing site and download it for free.

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