A subsidiary of local internet provider LINKdotNET recently launched a website designed to facilitate the legal downloading of Egyptian movies. This, however, may do little to change the culture of file sharing.
"We make over a thousand transactions per day, so we’re very happy," says Mostafa Kamel, the general manager of technology for LINKonLINE. "Getting Egyptians to buy movies on the internet will be great success for us because we’re suffering a lot from piracy."
But not everyone views internet piracy as negatively as Kamel. Amr Gharbeia, a technology blogger, believes that consumers should be free to share music and films.
"The assault on people’s right to make copies of music and films uses the context of copyrights. The fact is, copyright laws were devised to prevent industrial competition to make profits without investing money first," Gharbeia says.
"Extending the application of copyrights from corporations to people is an assault on our rights to make cassette collections. Remember the 80s and 90s?" he adds, referring to the crackdowns on music shops in Egypt that compiled and sold cassette tapes of foreign music.
The entertainment business’ argument, that copyrights protect artists and encourage creativity, is actually based on a drive for profit, Gharbeia says.
But the profit model may be outdated.
"Today’s technology and free licenses, like Creative Commons, allow for most artists to make and share art on a profit model that does not need corporations that take the largest part of the return," says the blogger. "In the old days, you had to be as big as Adel Imam to earn a living on the commercial market. We [consumers] and the artists do not need the intermediaries as much as we did 40 years ago, and this trend does not seem to stop."
The movie website launched a few months ago, Shofha.com, sells films through digital distribution rights licenses with Egyptian production houses. The company would not disclose the details of their deals with production houses.
"We offer some of these movies for very, very cheap prices," Kamel says. "I have films that I’m selling for two pounds–that’s like 20 cents."
But once the consumer buys and downloads a movie, not much can prevent him/her from sharing the file with other people.
Amgad Abadir, who runs the DVD rental website EGDVD.com, says piracy has affected his business. While customers once went out of their way to obtain a DVD, they can now use applications to rip DVDs onto a computer. He makes little distinction between that and downloading a movie from filesharing and pirating sites.
"It’s the same concept," he says. "Someone can rent my DVDs and make copies of it. It’s the same for Shofha.com. Someone can buy the movie and give it to his friend."
Shofha.com has a few ways to prevent piracy. One is a rental model, similar to the one used by iTunes, which comes with a license to watch the movie for a certain time period, such as 48 hours, after which the digital file cannot be opened.
Shofha also has geographic specific downloads to restrict access to certain locations.
This not only stops users in Egypt from downloading a film, but gives the filmmakers who sell the digital distribution rights to Shofha.com access to markets where their films are not showing in theaters.
Another way is to stream the video, a system in which the viewer simultaneously loads and watches the video. This usually prevents the video from being downloaded, but there are still applications that can circumvent the protections.
Slow internet speeds can also be a barrier to streaming, because users have to wait for the video to load, which, without a fast broadband connection, can be slow and expensive.
"While internet use is spreading rapidly in the region, most people are still on the cheapest, hence slowest, possible connections," says technology blogger Alaa Seif. "The growth of fixed-line broadband has slowed down while 3G is leading. But 3G offers have severe caps on how much you can download. So for the majority of users, bandwidth is a big issue."
So far, the site has about 300 Egyptian titles, mostly recent films. Kamel says that with about 60 to 70 percent of the production houses signed on, Shofha.com will usually have the latest features.
Director Amr Salama, whose film Zay Inaharda is featured on Shofha’s homepage, says that although the profits of digital sales go to the production house and not to him, digital distribution could help the Egyptian movie industry. Film production budgets have decreased recently, with the producers citing piracy as the main source of lost revenues, he says."When the production houses make more money they will spend more money."
"Just yesterday I found [illegal] torrents for my film," he adds.
For a director who puts considerable effort into making a film, finding poor quality or manipulated video can be frustrating. Salama says he was extremely annoyed when he downloaded his film through a torrent and found that someone had changed the color correction, which had taken three months to complete.
"That was a catastrophe," he says. "I didn’t like it at all. I worked too hard on the color correction."
The quality of the films on Shofha is comparable to DVDs, Kamel said, but there still are not any movies shot in High Definition–not that consumers necessarily care.
"The quality does matter, but not too many people are excited about quality," says Abadir, who is struggling to keep EGDVD afloat because of piracy. "Sometimes they want to watch the movie in any quality."
It is difficult to determine exactly how many people share pirated files over the internet. Worldwide, an estimated 50 percent of internet traffic is consumed by torrents, a common way of sharing movies and large files.
There are approximately 16.8 million internet subscribers in Egypt, according to government statistics. About 20 percent of those share an internet connection with someone else, according to the consulting firm Arab Advisors Group.
Sharing an internet connection and sharing files are not the same, but they are not far from one another. For the average user, file sharing is easy and cheap.
"Why would I download from a website if I can easily use torrent or peer-to-peer software?" says Mohannad Sabry, 26, who says he downloads tens of movies a month.
For now, the entertainment industry is clinging desperately to its profits, but the internet has made it difficult. Consumers are finding ways around copyrights to the consternation of retailers.
"Somebody has to stop these people from copying movies," Abadir says. Seems difficult, if not impossible.