Hollywood can’t fight TikTok but can use it

TikTok has become a new frontier of entertainment piracy, with some account holders chopping up films and TV shows into scores of segments and publishing them, apparently for the delectation of those who can’t be bothered to buy a movie ticket or pay for a streaming service.

But Hollywood shouldn’t be worried.

It may be free, but it isn’t easy to watch films and shows this way. For fear of lawyers and TikTok’s copyright police, the pirates make the segments hard to find. You can spend hours tracking down all the snippets for the latest blockbuster and string them together in the correct order. For all that effort, you might miss important sections of the movie — and, most frustrating, discover that the climactic action sequence hasn’t yet been posted.

Why would anyone consume their entertainment this way? The treasure-hunt aspect of finding the content may be part of the draw. Some TikTokers say they enjoy being able to read the comments of others who have watched the movies or TV shows and leave critiques of their own.

And what’s in it for the pirates? They can’t easily make money because nobody would knowingly sponsor stolen content or place advertising against it. But they can grow their following: Views and likes are their own kind of reward.

What they’re doing obviously infringes copyrights, but in sharp contrast to previous generations of pirates, they needn’t fear phalanxes of entertainment industry lawyers waiting to take them to court or Washington lobbyists demanding legislative intervention. That’s because, unlike videotapes, DVDs and ripped AV1 files, a string of snippets on TikTok is hardly an existential threat to the industry.

Until someone — or something, since this could be a job for AI — comes up with an easy way to seamlessly thread together snippets into an uninterrupted movie or TV show, it’s hard to imagine substantial numbers of people will take to this form of viewing. For now, the effort required to hunt down, or even just shut down, the pirates may not be worth the outcome.

Platforms like TikTok and YouTube do a certain amount of policing and have grievance mechanisms for copyright violation, but the Digital Millennium Copyright Act gives them substantial legal cover from the activities of pirates. The job of finding and filing suit against them falls mainly to Hollywood studios and TV production companies. Industry organizations like the Motion Picture Association can’t help much: Jan van Voorn, chief of global content protection at the MPA, told the Wall Street Journal that they are geared to fight commercial piracy but not the nickel-and-dime variety.

If you can’t beat ’em, co-opt ’em. Recognizing that the social platform is how millions of Americans now consume content, more and more creators are using the platform to find an audience for their movies and shows. Last month, Peacock made the first episode of its new series Killing It free to watch, in full, on TikTok. (The first three episodes are also available on YouTube, as are all 10 episodes of the first season of Paramount ‘s Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.)

For studios, the hope is that TikTok, like YouTube, can serve as a platform to raise awareness and create buzz for their new movies, whether through legitimate trailers (movie marketing campaigns now routinely include a TikTok strategy) or illegally uploaded clips.

As I was researching this column, a clip ripped from American Psycho randomly popped up on my TikTok screen. It reminded me that I’ve never seen what is widely regarded as a classic. So I tracked it down on Amazon Prime and will be watching it this weekend.

I’ll leave it to Lions Gate Films, which produced American Psycho, to decide whether to sue the TikToker who posted the clip or to thank them.

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