In the last three years, the Tamil film industry has declared war on movie piracy. But like a multi-headed hydra, the problem keeps coming back, and in different forms.

Watching movie inside theatre while recording a scene using mobile phoneImage for Representation
Flix Piracy Thursday, August 27, 2020 - 17:42

In November 2017, when Tamil movie Ippadai Vellum, starring Udhayanidhi Stalin and Manjima Mohan hit the theatres, a team of eight techies working out of Anna Nagar in Chennai, got busy. Sharath Kumar, former Operations Head of Tamil Film Producers Anti-Piracy cell, recalls that a few hours before the release, they started scouring through social media, messaging platforms and scores of websites to see if the film had been leaked online.

Within hours, as expected, TamilRockers — the most notorious movie piracy website — had uploaded a camera quality print of the film. Sharath and his team had their work cut out. They used takedown tools to block the prints, appealed to various domain registries to block as many sites, found the source of the leak and went to the IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) Cell of the Tamil Nadu police which deals with intellectual property rights.

Though the anti-piracy cell started operations in May 2017, the focus initially was on a wipeout campaign. More than 60,000 infringing links on Facebook, 18,000 videos on YouTube, and 24,000 movies on Dailymotion were removed amongst other things. It was only when Ippadai Vellum was leaked, that the team got an FIR filed against TamilRockers for the first time. In the next two years, the team filed 40 police complaints against many sites like TamilRockers, Tamil Gun and Tamil Storm.

In the last three years, the Tamil film industry —  and a few notable producers —  have declared war on movie piracy. But like a multi-headed hydra, the problem keeps coming back, and in different forms. Today, it is not just theatrical releases that have to be protected, but even movies releasing exclusively on OTT (Over-the-Top) platforms are under the threat of piracy.

Jyothika’s Ponmagal Vandhal was the first big Tamil film that released directly on an OTT platform in May this year. But within an hour of it premiering on Amazon Prime Video, the film was available for download on TamilRockers. This was also the case with Zee5 Original’s Lock Up that released on August 14. The time stamp on the TamilRockers website will show you that it was up at 11.15 pm on August 13.

According to MUSO, a London-based data company that tracks global piracy, there has been a significant increase in film and television content piracy since the coronavirus lockdown was enforced. In India, film piracy rose by 63%, second only to Italy where it rose by 66%.

What is the modus operandi of these piracy websites and what can be done to stop them? TNM spoke to people from the industry to understand the issue.

Post-release piracy

Most of the copies uploaded on piracy sites are camera quality prints. Meaning, they have been shot inside the movie theatre using a camera —  phone or digital. Film producer SR Prabhu, who is also the Treasurer of the Producers’ Council, says, “There are a lot of people who do this as a part-time job. They just have to upload the film they’ve captured on the link given to them by the piracy site. For this, they get Rs 10,000 to 20,000 or even an iPhone. There are thousands of members on the Telegram app who subscribe to such piracy groups, and within a matter of seconds, the film reaches them.”

A cursory glance at Telegram shows that multiple groups run by TamilRockers have lakhs of subscribers. But this is their forum which can be accessed by the public. These piracy websites also have closed networks where their agents, spread across states, coordinate on the theatres in which a movie will release and then decide from which theatre the movie can be recorded. TamilRockers now has many groups for Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Hindi movies too.

 

According to Sharath, illegal recording in theatres is how most movies are pirated, even though piracy websites advertise that they have ‘HD quality’ print.

Senthil Kumar, Co-founder of Qube Cinema Technologies, a pioneering digital service provider company, says that protocols have been put in place to track prints that are coming from a cinema hall.

"It's called forensic watermarking. It's an invisible mark that's embedded into the picture which the camera cannot see and neither can the audience. But when we run it through software, it will tell us the exact serial number of the theatre with the date and time,” Senthil says.

Sharath says the anti-piracy cell would first download a leaked movie and rush the CD to Qube’s office. “We then wait for the forensics to tell us from which theatre the movie was recorded from. Almost every time, the recording would have been done from a theatre in the suburbs, or in theatres from other states.”

Senthil adds that through forensic investigation, they have found the exact source of the leak in many cases.

"We have found out such details for hundreds of films. Every week, we have a few production houses asking us to detect where the film came from and invariably we're able to tell them which theatre it was. As long as it's from a DCI compliant (Digital Cinema Initiative) or Qube system. There are many competitors of ours, smaller companies, which don't have such capabilities. But all the rest, we can identify it very accurately. Courts, especially in Kerala, have used this as evidence.”

Senthil says that earlier, they would inform producers about which theatre, date, and show the leak happened, but now they give more details. “We try to understand whether it's happening from inside the auditorium or whether it's happening from inside the projection booth...which means the projectionist or somebody else from the theatre is in collusion. From the angle and the quality, whether they have used a tripod, from the sound and so on,” Senthil adds.

Sharath says that in one instance, they found that the movie was leaked from a multiplex in Chennai’s suburbs as the piracy website accidentally uploaded a fraction of the popcorn ad.

Theatres need to cooperate

Qube found that many Malayalam movies were being leaked from a single screen theatre in Bengaluru, while Telugu movies were being recorded from multiplexes in Delhi.

“Tamil movies, we found, were coming from multiplexes in Bengaluru. Some of the producers took action and said they'd stop releases in that multiplex, and then the theatre stepped up and stopped the piracy. In all these cases, it was someone from the audience who was doing it,” Senthil says.

However, convincing all theatres to join the anti-piracy movement has not been successful, admits SR Prabhu. While some don’t want to take responsibility, others simply don't have the revenue to install CCTV cameras. “Many employees get low salaries and these piracy websites offer them money, the theatres just don’t do enough to ensure that their employees don’t leak directly or abet this,” he points out.

Camera prints leaking from theatres, however, is only a part of the problem.

Overseas buyers and other leaks

Many in the industry agree that the leaks also happen through overseas buyers, and these doubts have been strengthened due to a few HD leaks. Typically, an overseas buyer gets a print a few days before the release.

“I am very sure that these piracy websites that act as if they are doing some service are paying money for the print. In my knowledge, one overseas buyer was paid quite a lot for leaking a movie,” claims a producer who did not want to be named.

SR Prabhu says that he is not aware of financial transactions, but that the leak from foreign locations has been discussed many times in their forums. The Malayalam film industry, which is also battling piracy, has started postponing releases in outside Kerala centres by a few weeks. They believe that if the movies release only in Kerala first, they have more control and can ensure that leaks don't happen.

“It is difficult for Tamil producers to delay overseas releases as the money involved is much higher. Overseas buyers will not agree to buy with the same rates. Moreover, if the reviews label a movie bad or average, it's a huge risk for the producer,” he points out.

“I am sure these piracy websites have huge networks and support systems in Tamil Nadu. How do they otherwise know who the foreign buyer is and negotiate terms with them? At least one buyer has to be blacklisted and only then can we send out a strong message, but we never will,” says another producer.

This producer added that in the case of a particular film starring a popular actor, the movie’s producer paid money to a piracy website which claimed that they had the movie’s print, in order to stall the leak. This allegation, however, was not confirmed by any of the others TNM spoke to.

Though not often and much lesser in the last few years, there have been some instances of a movie being leaked from any of the facilities where it goes for post-production.

Piracy has become so ingrained that CS Amudhan’s Tamizh Padam 2.0 poster mockingly declared that TamilRockers was the film’s ‘official piracy partner’ and that the film would release on the piracy site, the day after its theatrical release.

CS Amudhan says that there are various theories on how piracy thrives, but no real breakthrough has happened. “There are a lot of conspiracy theories. That the leak was happening during the post-production stages — dubbing, editing, DI grading, VFX — or it could be getting leaked when it is sent to overseas markets for release there. The popular theory is that when the film is sent to Malaysia and Singapore a few days before its theatrical release, it could be the stage when it's stolen by piracy sites. These are the popular theories but we haven’t pinned it down to anything. The truth is that no one knows for sure how it's done,” he says.

Who are the TamilRockers?

In April 2017, when actor and producer Vishal, Kathiresan, SS Durai Raj and SR Prabhu were elected to the Tamil Nadu Film Producers’ Council, the war against piracy sites was declared with much fanfare. Other than setting up the anti-piracy cell, the Council also worked with the police to pin down those behind these operations. A few people who were supplying the leaked movies were arrested from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but these investigations made no headway.

Most sources say that TamilRockers was started by a small group of friends in 2011 and grew exponentially over the years. Most believe that they are based out of France while their sites are hosted in Russia, while some say it is hosted in Romania. Their DNS and other information are strictly protected and secured.Tamil Gun administrators are London-based, believe many members of the Tamil film industry.

“They are all connected in some way, that we are sure, TamilRockers and Tamil Gun. They have a huge network in Tamil Nadu and once they put a link out, they have members here who spread it like wildfire,” says Sharath. The members of the anti-piracy cell have now formed a company called Massbunk Antipiracy and claim that they are close to revealing who their nemeses are in the upcoming months.

However, with Ponmagal Vandhal’s leak, many in the industry feel defeated, and are convinced that this is a problem that they cannot tackle alone.

“Earlier, we said that the overseas market was the cause and many stopped sending their films overseas before the official release. Then we found that the sites were picking it up from theatres in Bengaluru. Today a film comes on Amazon Prime Video, and within a few minutes it is up on a torrent site. Technology is so advanced, how and what all to stop? We have tried it all and have lost hope,” producer Dhananjayan says, sounding exasperated.

There is a big debate ongoing in the industry over how Ponmagal Vandhal was leaked. Someone who worked closely with the movie says that it was leaked only after the movie came out on the OTT platform. He refutes a few others who believe that the piracy website got hold of the movie from a selected preview which the platform hosted. “The preview was for a select few, but everyone had a special key. And when I watched the preview, my id showed on top. There is no way the piracy site could have wiped the id in every frame,” the insider says.

In whichever way the movie was leaked, this is a new concern, a new challenge. 

“The Government of India banned all pornographic websites. Most recently, they stopped all Chinese apps. Why can't they act against piracy websites?” Dhananjayan asks.

A producer who has collaborated on movies like Irudhi Suttru and Kaatrin Mozhi, Dhananjayan adds that over the years, he has employed the services of anti-piracy agencies but calls it a “reactive” process. “It is also very time-consuming. They function by identifying and sending notices to servers that host the link. By the time they get back and act upon it, since the servers are in different countries, hundreds of viewers would have downloaded it,” he points out.

Also read: How Karthik Subbaraj's 'Petta' team is fighting Tamil Rockers and other online pirates

Though most of the piracy websites behave as if they are doing a public service, the reality is that there is major revenue in the game. “We have been running campaigns and telling advertisers to not put ads on their sites,” says Sharath.

But running behind advertisers is an exhausting process and one that can have only limited success. “It is a long legal battle. We need a tougher legal system and legal counsel to fight this,” says SR Prabhu.

CV Kumar, a producer who has made movies like Pizza and Soodhu Kavvum, says a crackdown is the only way ahead. “The main guys sit abroad, and we may never be able to touch them. But we need to find their networks here and file cases against them. But more than anything else, people in Tamil Nadu need to ask themselves why the Tamil industry suffers more than others. That’s because many people here don’t have any respect for cinema as art or have any regard for people behind movies. So they think it’s okay to enable this mafia,” he says.

(With inputs from Dhanya Rajendran)

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