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Insights from Industry Insiders: Simon Brown, Film Content Protection Agency, UK

by Content Cafe — March 23,2021

Each month we hear from industry insiders in Australia and abroad to get their take on content piracy. Is content protection improving? How do we stop piracy? How does Australia compare to the rest of the world? These are some of the questions we'll be exploring with leaders across the content industry.

Welcome Simon, please introduce yourself. 

Hi everyone – I’m Simon Brown, and I head the Film Content Protection Agency (FCPA) in the UK. The FCPA is an operational arm of the Film Distributors’ Association Ltd. (FDA) – the trade body for theatrical film distributors in the UK and Ireland, which works in partnership with other bodies who share the goal of safeguarding films from piracy. My background includes 29 years of experience in the fields of investigation and security, in both the public and private sectors, and I have previously worked at Lancashire Police, the BBC and FACT (Federation Against Copyright Theft).

I’ve spent the last 15 years specializing in the protection of film content from source-piracy in cinemas, by focusing on the detection and prevention of illegal recording activity (aka “camcording”). Our programme is unparalleled worldwide and has a proven track record of success.

Does piracy affect your business or that of your stakeholders? How? 

Our programme has one clear objective – to prevent infringing / pirated versions of films from being sourced in cinemas in the UK & Ireland, and in doing so continue to make the theatrical release lifecycle as safe and secure as possible.

With advances in technology, audiences have more choices than ever before to access film content – when, where and on any device they want. However, as the content increasingly moves online, so does the demand for readily available infringing versions of newly released films. The majority of such “pirated” versions are still sourced in cinemas around the world by illegal recording activity, and just one infringing digital copy is typically streamed globally within hours by internet release groups.

The UK/Ireland often benefits from first or early theatrical releases relative to other territories, and this, together with the attractiveness of English language soundtracks enhances the risks of such films to piracy here. Just as an example a few years ago we investigated a case whereby one individual recorded a new (UK-first) blockbuster release at his local cinema, and then distributed it online – making it the first available pirated version globally. That infringing version was subsequently illegally downloaded at least 750,000 times over the first few weeks, causing huge financial losses to the industry. Estimated losses were a minimum of £2.4 million, but realistically much larger.

What are the biggest challenges in the fight against piracy? 

Piracy is a very complex issue that cannot be addressed with a single solution. Our challenges change as technology develops. Specifically, to our programme there have been huge developments in the world of smartphone technology since we started looking at the camcording issue back in 2006. At that time cammers were quite limited in what they could use to record film content in cinemas, and relied mainly on relatively big and bulky camcorders (hence the term “cammers”). However nowadays we are faced with the challenge of offenders using small, compact devices (mainly smartphones) which are not only easier to conceal but widely possessed. Cammers continue to be creative, and devices other that smartphones are still occasionally used – we had a particularly interesting case in the UK a few years ago where a person attempted to use two small digital cameras fixed together to record a 3D theatrical film in 3D. Thankfully fantastic vigilance and awareness by staff at the cinema led to him being spotted and arrested. We subsequently tested the device and an infringing 3D pirated version was easily reproduced – which could then be played on a 3D television. Up until then there was a perception that 3D films could not be camcorded, but this case proved otherwise. Pirates will always try to overcome barriers, so we have to try to be one step ahead – and anti-piracy vigilance and awareness of cinema staff remain crucial in our ongoing fight.

Aside from technological advances, “consumer confusion” around film piracy remains a serious challenge; it’s often very difficult for the average internet user to differentiate between illegal and legal content. There is an assumption that an online video streaming site, especially one with membership fees, is providing legal content. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, but many consumers remain unaware.

Do you have any personal experiences or anecdotes about piracy? 

Inevitably I’ve seen some very interesting things whilst in this fascinating world of anti-piracy over the last 15 years or so. Working in partnership with other agencies and bodies on high-impact investigations is always rewarding and interviewing suspects in custody with law enforcement has been of particular interest and invaluable in determining the motives, methods and sometimes madness of the offenders. For example, in one case several years ago, having tracked down a repeat camming offender, he was arrested and interviewed at the local police station. We then recovered some old emails from his laptop, which he had sent to the cinema-manager asking if he could take a long plank to the cinema on his next visit – he claimed he was disabled and needed it to support his back. Clearly this appeared like madness so he was asked about it during an interview – only to admit his intention was to place the plank across the armrests of the seats in the cinema and sit on it – thereby raising both his and the cameras position above the seats in front to camcord better footage!  To this day I don’t think he had considered how odd and suspicious this would have looked! 

What are you watching and recommending to friends at the moment?

I don’t subscribe to streaming sites personally at present, but do have a huge library of DVDs and Blu-rays from over the years – they are genuine and not pirated versions by the way! The last films I watched were “Surrogates”, “Boxtrolls” and the classic “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” – so a pretty eclectic mix! I do love TV comedy too, and am currently enjoying watching the brilliant BBC series “The Royle Family (again!) 

What excites you about the future of your industry sector? 

While I think we all acknowledge it’s been the most challenging 12 months the industry has ever faced, I remain very optimistic about the future. Nothing compares to the sheer magic of watching a new film in a lovely cinema – the huge screen, the brilliant sound, the entire experience –and not forgetting the copious amount of popcorn! Cinemas certainly aren’t the same places they were in the past, and many now offer unique entertainment experiences. Let’s look forward to further developments as the industry recovershopefully with new formats and approaches. As for the anti-piracy world, then who knows what is around the corner. Technology is clearly a huge and significant driver and collectively the industry must continue to examine how it can help tackle the problem

Before you go check out last month’s interviews with Michael Hawkins and  Ruth Vitale

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