Consumers use different film media, from screenings in cinemas via transmission on television to "secondary film media" like DVDs or VHS. For the film-industry, the exploitation of film-contents in film-theatres is only the first step of many in a long economical chain. Production-costs are recouped rarely at the box offices for the bigger part of all productions worldwide. Although some films, mostly Hollywood blockbusters, storm the box office, it isn't certain that the production costs will be completely recouped by exploitation in film-theatres. To make film-productions economically viable, other channels of exploitation like transmission on television, release on storage media like DVD or VHS as well as the new Video-On-Demand (VoD) have to be used.

However today, potential consumers can easily acquire film-contents illegally and film-piracy has increased because of uncontrolled p2p networks. While piracy-supporters argue that the internet has been constructed as a freebie information portal and therefore freebie data-transfers are considered legitimate, many economic and political initiatives are trying to use legal steps and technical protection measures to protect producers’ copyrights.

The survey
One of the main goals of an empirical analysis carried out by the institute for sociology at the University Karlsruhe (TH) between October and December 2004 was to investigate how users of illegally distributed film-contents are at the same time legal users (Langewitz 2004).

A total of 982 people filled in the online-questionnaire, of which 67.4 % were male and 29.9 % female (2.7% haven´t specified). This gender ratio isn't unusual for an online-survey, because predominantly male film-consumers use the web to collect information about films, as shown in the online survey by the two German television broadcasters under public law, ARD/ZDF (2004).

To reach as many persons as possible, e-mails were sent to potential participants selected from online-user-lists (e.g. or, alumni-lists and databases of professionals (e.g. Potential participants were also encouraged by way of online-media and online-forums as well as print-media, in which the goal of the survey has been communicated. Specialist film-sites like, or were mainly used for this purpose. It is assumed that in the end a representative sample of active German film-users participated. This is confirmed by the basic findings:

  • 48.2 % of all participants said they go to cinema often,
  • 51.8 % frequently watch films on television,
  • 58.9 % use film-DVDs a lot. The high value of DVDs for film-exploitation today is already apparent.
  • 28.3 % (not more) watch films often on VHS, and just
  • 8.3 % of all participants answered that they often use the World Wide Web for consuming films.

Next we wanted to know more about the use of secondary film media. Once a consumer has seen a film on one medium, it is of interest, to find out if he will consume the film once more on another medium. For maximum exploitation, consumers must consume film-contents multiple times. To achieve this, high content quality, high technical quality, and a strong emotional consumer commitment to the product is required. In some cases multiple exploitation is extremely successful due to strong customer loyalty, e.g. the mass-phenomena “Star Wars”, “Star Trek” or the “Lord of the Rings”-Trilogy.

According to the survey presented here: 63 % of all respondents often buy a film on DVD, because they already have seen it at the cinema, and 33.2 % often buy DVDs of films viewed on television before.

For the economics of secondary film media it is also interesting that DVDs and VHSs are bought rather than hired out: 27.9 % of all participants replied that they never rent DVDs, and 60.7 % of all respondents never rent films on VHS. In contrast only 16 % of all respondents never buy DVDs and 60.7 % of all respondents never buy VHSs. This precarious situation for VHS does not come as a surprise as production costs for VHSs are high while the functionality of this storage-medium- is very low. Producers must lower prices and thus their margin gets very small. It is easy to foresee that the videotape as a storage medium is dying out and producers will concentrate on DVDs.

Next it was interesting to learn about copying behaviour: Almost every participant in the survey who owns up to having pirated movies is at the same time an active consumer. In other words: there are some consumers, who own illegal film-copies. In more detail:

56.6 % of respondents described video tape as their primary target-media for film copies, followed by 36.2 % copying on DVDs; next come special digital compression techniques, e.g. DiVX with 30.8 %, and finally S-VCD (29.8 %) and VCD (28 %). Just 26.2 % of respondents said they didn't own any copied films. On average every respondent owns more than 57 copied films. The average number of legally purchased film-copies however is considerably higher; it is more than 86. Therefore it comes as no surprise that the German video-industry considers 2004 a successful year as reported in December last year in “Videowoche Online” (2004). The bigger worry for producers is the continuing and rapid decline of film-prices on video.

Discussion about consumers and pirates
The importance of age
Age plays an important role. The “Piracy Study 3” (2004) showed that predominantly people aged 20 to 29 years produce illegal film-copies. But this age-group is also the one which most frequently visits the cinema. These findings are confirmed by the survey presented here: 49.9 % of all respondents belong to the group aged between 20 to 29 years. Most of them are active both as consumers and as film-pirates. Only a tiny fraction consumes films only illegally. The overwhelming majority watches films in cinemas (98.2 %).

The importance of roles changes
Film-pirates become consumers, producers become consumers, consumers become producers, and producers become pirates. There is no limit to role changes. This has already been observed by Winter (1995). Indeed an overwhelming majority of 90.9 % of all producers tape films from television broadcasts, 56.4 % of producers admitted to sometimes copying films from video tapes and 30.9 % copied films from DVDs. In other words producers behave more or less like average consumers. These results are based on the answers of those respondents (9.1 %) of the sample who said they were employed in the film-industry.

Anti-piracy campaigns go astray
Anti-piracy-campaigns like the “Hard but fair: pirates are criminals”-campaign by ZKM (Zukunft Kino Marketing GmbH; ZKM 2004) try to prevent potential film-pirates from carrying out criminal activities. One of the main problems of their strategy is that the campaign is targeted at film-theatre-audiences or is presented as a clip before the main feature on the DVD. In this way, consumers, who also may have some illegal film-copies at home, are treated as criminals. On the ZKM-campaign-website (cf. ZKM 2004) you find exactly this issue in the FAQ section: “We are showing the consequences of criminal organized film-piracy and we point out: your acts are actually theft of copyrighted works and illegal for that reason.” It is certainly necessary to point out the problem of film-piracy but it is important to use an adequate form of communication and to address the target group properly. In practice, organized film-pirates will hardly be reached by this strategy.

Motivations of film "pirates"
In our study "unavailability" was frequently mentioned as a reason to make a copy, either because of timing (the film has already been distributed in other countries while a release for Germany has not been decided on), or for territorial reasons (the film will not or only within constraints be distributed in Germany). The reasons for this fall into three main categories:

  • The film hasn't found a German publisher.
  • The film has been put on the index by the „Federal inspection authority for youth endangering publications” (BPjS).
  • The film has been banned under §131 and/ or §184 StGB (criminal law).

Especially fans of the horror-genre have difficulty with the unavailability of movies, so a very productive "underground" has developed. In relation to this an interesting fact is that a lot of these fans would like to purchase the products legally to support the filmmakers. In addition, for these fans the original product possesses a special emotional or ideological value. From a legal point of view, these consumers act illegally as even the ownership of such films is a criminal act. Horror-fans use a complex network to get forbidden films and accordingly to buy their stuff abroad. It is easily possible for them to order appropriate films from foreign online-stores or p2p-networks. These transactions might be legal to the extent that the films are bought in official stores. Therefore the consumers aren’t acting as film-pirates. The illegal aspect consists of buying films banned in Germany, e.g. by the §131 StGB.

Giesler and Pohlmann (2003) use the example of Napster to describe piracy primarily as a subcultural lifestyle concept which creates the "emancipated consumer paradox". Consumers are creating an ever growing distance to the consumption process as defined by market economy, which manifests itself in a collective feeling of freedom by producing and consuming illegal film-copies. This is certainly a problem for the film-industry, because an "emancipated" consumer can hardly be controlled.

Bottom line
Piracy for private purposes is not behaviour by a special group as the survey revealed, and film-pirates copying film-contents for their own use find themselves in a grey area, especially when they have purchased a legal copy before. Most consumers are at the same time "pirates" just like those who work in the film industry, who are producers, consumers and pirates. Nevertheless age is apparently an important parameter indicating a high level of legal film consumption and a higher level of (not always illegal) copying activities. Film piracy is also a group phenomenon when it comes to splatter and trash. Break out of the economical system is just one element of this "underground" culture. Prosecution and punishment may be the appropriate strategy against professional film pirates, who make profits from stolen films by selling them on black-markets, strategies to reduce piracy at the individual level need however to be more cautious than criminalising campaigns.


About the author: Oliver Langewitz is a sociologist who works as research associate at the Institute for Sociology of University Karlsruhe (TH). His main interests are theory of mass media, communications-theory, phenomenology and role-theory. He works also as a producer and is a partner within a Film- and DVD-Production-Company. Contact:

Status: first posted 27.01.2005; included in INDICARE Monitor, Vol. 1, No 8, 28 January 2005; licensed under Creative Commons