If piracy has a cost, as MPAA CEO Chris Dodd pointed out at CineEurope, you’d think someone would be willing to pay to offset it. Both CinemaCon and CineEurope took advantage of a technology called PirateEye, which actively scans cinema audiences and alerts users if a camera is pointed at a screen.
PirateEye (sold by the company of the same name) was originally developed by defense contractor Apogen, located in San Diego, and later purchased by another defense contractor, Qinetiq. Based on sniper-scope detection technology, the anti-piracy version was developed with significant investment from Movie Labs, an organization funded by the major studios for the purpose of seeding anti-piracy technologies. The rights to the PirateEye technology was sold late last year to an investment group led by Brian Dunn, formerly of Macrovision, in partnership with Movie Labs. The company’s web site is at http://pirateeye.com.
PirateEye technology works. It has been used by the MPAA to capture pirates and provide the convincing photographic evidence needed to put them in jail. Where PirateEye encounters difficulty is in finding someone willing to pay for more than a few units. The company is actively developing a lower cost detector for placement above cinema screens. But its plan to sell units for permanent placement in opening week screens faces a classic problem in cinema. Exhibitors won’t pay for a device that doesn’t help them generate income, and studios won’t pay for a box that gets installed at exhibition sites.
For those familiar with the early discussions of “who pays” for digital cinema, the PirateEye scenario should sound familiar. In the digital cinema case, exhibitors simply held out until studios agreed to help pay. But the options available to PirateEye aren’t so simple. The studios have been content to live with minimal protection of opening night screenings, which doesn’t provide a lot of room for leverage. If attempting to pursue sponsorships, it’ll be difficult to get a major brand to associate itself with the capture of potential customers pointing cameras at screens.
If PirateEye finds its way to success, it’ll be through the ancillary data made possible by adding image recognition software to the device. Such technology can identify the gender and age of audience members, which will be of high value to movie distributors and preshow advertisers. First, however, exhibitors must be willing to accept the risk of audience reaction by allowing such technology to be installed. But there is also the possibility that studios will value the data more than the anti-piracy benefit, encouraging exhibitors to install their own cameras with gender and age recognition software and showing PirateEye the door. Even when faced with capture using the best of technologies, it may be that pirates will still get their way.