There are many problems with Timothy B. Lee’s Washington Post blog post on Hollywood’s supposed culpability for the theft of its own movies, beginning with the morally unserious jujitsu deployed in arguing that Hollywood is culpable for the theft of its own movies.

The Mercatus- and Cato-connected editor of the Washington Post tech blog that aims “to be indispensable to telecom lobbyists and IT professionals alike, while also being compelling and provocative to the average iPhone-toting commuter” also had a major correction that undermines the entire premise of the piece and reveals its one-sided reporting.

(UPDATE: Speaking of conflicts… CJR has recently gotten funding from the Motion Picture Association of America to cover intellectual-property issues. MPAA has no influence over the Cloud Control feature’s content and doesn’t fund The Audit).

The post initially was published with the Reddit-bait headline “Here’s why Hollywood should blame itself for its piracy problems,” still appears on Wonkblog’s most-popular list as “People pirate movies they can’t get legally,” and now is reduced to “Many of the most-pirated movies aren’t available for legitimate online purchase.”

Lee based his argument on bad data from PiracyData.org, which was co-founded by a couple of researchers at the Koch-funded anti-government think tank the Mercatus Center to document whether “people turn to piracy when the movies they want to watch are not available legally.”

Left unmentioned: That Lee himself contributed a chapter to a Mercatus book with the researchers (at least one of whom is his friend) called “Copyright Unbalanced: From Incentive to Excess.” That would have been worth disclosing in the post. Readers would have had more reason to be skeptical.

Here’s the correction, which is stuffed at the bottom of the piece rather than flagged up high like it should have been:

The original data supplied to us by PiracyData.org was inaccurate. It showed 1 movie available for rental and 4 available for purchase. In fact, at least 3 were available for rental and 6 were available for purchase. “Pacific Rim” is also now available for digital rental, though it’s not clear if that was true on Monday. We regret the errors. We also added some additional comments from the MPAA’s Kate Bedingfield to the end of the article.

And that’s how you go from “Here’s why Hollywood should blame itself for its piracy problems” to “Many of the most-pirated movies aren’t available for legitimate online purchase” a few hours later.

Here’s the thing: If you make a movie, you should be able to sell it however you see fit, not however free-Internet types see fit. Perhaps how you decide to sell it will not be the best way you could sell it. That doesn’t in any way excuse tech companies from aiding theft via piracy, much less the people doing the actual pirating. And yes, anti-copyright people, pirating a copyrighted work is theft.

People steal pirated movies largely because they’d rather not pay for something they don’t have to pay for, and because the consequences of breaking the law are almost nonexistent. It’s not very complicated.

And there’s a correlation/causation problem here too. While it’s certainly true that some unknown percentage of the piracy here is due to limited availability, it’s also clear that the movies in the top-10 most-pirated list are relatively recent releases. And relatively recent releases are in higher demand—including from thieves—than back-catalog films.

So what about those additional comments from the MPAA Lee refers to in his correction? This is how his rewritten post now ends (emphasis mine):

But Bedingfield counters that films get heavily pirated even when they’re made available in online formats. “The Walking Dead was pirated 500,000 times within 16 hours despite the fact that it is available to stream for free for the next 27 days on AMC’s website and distributed in 125 countries around the world the day after it aired,” she says. “Our industry is working hard to bring content to audiences when they want it, where they want it, but content theft is a complex problem that requires comprehensive, voluntary solutions from all stakeholders involved.”

Finally, Bedingfield points out that the Mercatus Center counts Google among its funders.

Boom.

Score one for the big, bad MPAA.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.