FBI piracy warning

So you’ve just settled down with a loved one, some popcorn, and an illegally downloaded movie. But, like the other movies you’ve pirated, it looks like crap. Why do so many pirated videos look so bad?

Ugly Videos Are Bad for Everybody—Even Filmmakers

Video quality tends to take a backseat when piracy is involved. You get what you pay for, after all. But whatever way you look at it, the poor quality of illegal videos is bad for everybody, from viewers to filmmakers.

At a personal level, movies and shows are less impressive and engrossing when they look like a hunk of digital garbage. Actors and filmmakers intentionally take advantage of minute physical details, lighting, and color while shooting a film or movie, but those details are useless if they can’t be properly experienced.

And as it turns out, some corporate big-wigs are more concerned about this loss of experience than the financial ramifications of piracy. In 2013, HBO programming president Micheal Lombardo said that his biggest concern about piracy is that a show’s “production values” may not hold up in “purloined” (stolen) copies of the show. If these production values aren’t adequately conveyed to an audience, then the show’s reputation can be permanently damaged.

Need an example? Look at the final season of Game of Thrones. Some fans have complained that the final season’s episodes have “poor lighting,” but there’s a chance that many of these fans are merely watching illegal, low-quality copies of the show. As a result, the legacy of the show is damaged by piracy, and people who have never watched it (myself included) use “poor lighting” as an excuse to not watch Game of Thrones.

So why do these pirated videos look so nasty? Well, most pirates are impatient—or they have no idea what they’re doing.

Good Files Are Incorrectly Ripped or Recorded

Let’s say that you’ve just bought a Blu Ray copy of a beautifully remastered movie. Instead of inviting friends over to show off this movie, you decide to upload it to an illicit website (don’t do this). Where do you start? Well, you’ll pop the disc into your computer and drag the file onto your desktop, right?

An HDMI cable sticking out of a TV. Looks like someone doesn't know how to properly rip Blu Ray discs!

You’re going to have some problems with that. For one, most Blu Ray disc readers have anti-ripping firmware that prevents the illegal distribution of movies. The other issue that you’ll run into is the file format (or the lack thereof). Remember, most commercial films come with menus, trailers, foreign language dubs, subtitles, and commentary. This mess of files can be expressed as a directory (with no apparent “movie file” to pull out) or an ISO file that can only be played by a physical or a software with a built-in virtual disc reader (DVDs usually contain ISO files, so pirates run into the same problem with DVDs).

So instead of trying to figure out this mess of files and archives, you (the pirate) may opt for an easier solution. Usually, this “easier” solution is to record the movie from your screen using a screen recording software, or by recording the output from your living room Blu Ray player via HDMI or RCA cable. As you can imagine, these paths lead to a loss in quality due to compression, hardware lag, recording resolution, and a mess of other problems. Your ultra high-res movie is now a lumpy hunk of crap.

Compression and File Conversion can Lower Video Quality

But let’s pretend that you (our dear pirate) find a way to crack open ISOs and Blu Ray archives. Now you’re faced with another problem; your fancy video file takes up 10% of your hard drive.

A single-sided DVD can have a storage capacity of about 8.5GB, and a Blu Ray disc can have a storage capacity of anywhere between 25GB and 300GB. In other words, high-quality movies take up a lot of storage space. For personal use, this isn’t a big deal. But when someone goes to download your “ULTRA HIGH RES” illegal movie, they’re gonna see the file size (and the lack of P2P seeders) and run.

So you, the genius pirate, might decide to make the file size smaller through compression or file conversion. Video compression can work in several ways, but it’s usually done through a mix of resolution reduction, bitrate reduction (lowering the amount of data shown every second) and interframe compression (only the changes between frames are stored on the video file). Generally speaking, file conversion always causes compression, as most video file types are restricted to specific resolutions, bitrates, and framerates.

A man stares in disgust at his laptop. Evidently, the movie that he bragged about pirating looks like a wad of dirt.

While there are a handful of nearly-lossless compression methods, many pirates (including you) don’t know what they’re doing. So now your 50GB high-res movie is a 500MB hunk of screaming garbage, and anyone who downloads that illegal file will throw a fit when they see the famous FBI warning caked with digital artifacts and nasty colors.

New Movies and Shows Are Rushed to Piracy Websites

When you pirate a new movie or TV show, you’re almost guaranteed to end up with a crappy file. New movies and shows are usually pirated the old fashioned way, with a handy phone camera or camcorder. These are called “cams”—they’re just a video of someone pointing their handheld camera at a screen in a theater. This results in sound issues, color issues, and terrible video quality.

Of course, some new shows are ripped straight from a digital source, like a premium streaming website or a cable box. But in those cases, the video quality is usually hampered by the pirate’s internet speeds, recording methods, and the compression that the file underwent to be aired through a streaming service or cable box.

Video Files Can Pass Hands for Years

In the gaming world, there’s this odd phenomenon where old illegal video game files pop up in weird places, like the official Wii Virtual Console. Evidently, these files float around on old websites or in people’s hard drives (they don’t just disappear). They occasionally find themselves being copied to other peoples computers or uploaded to an illicit website when newer versions of the same game are taken down.

The same goes for movies and shows. Media corporations routinely remove popular movies and shows from piracy websites, and something has to fill that void. If someone happens to have a ten-year-old illegal copy of a recently-removed film, they may be inclined to upload it in place of the copy that’s been taken down.

A pirate gleefully rips his favorite unmarked DVDs

Naturally, people are going to download this old file if it’s the only thing available. As it gains more downloads, it climbs to the top of search results. But since its an old file, there’s a chance that it’s traveled through multiple computers, undergoing years of mild compression and file conversions. And, of course, it may have been initially ripped from a crappy DVD release or a TV broadcast.

This problem is often amplified because of YouTube. Illegal movies occasionally find their way to YouTube, usually through the act of intentionally distorting or over-compressing the video to get past the website’s automatic anti-piracy filters. Some people download videos from YouTube through third-party websites (which invariably compresses the file), and these videos can sometimes find their way onto piracy websites when higher-quality options aren’t available.

Want Quality? Pay Up

In the end, your pirated videos look bad because pirating is a pain in the ass. Whether you’re uploading files or downloading files, there are a ridiculous number of hurdles to jump over.

If you don’t want to watch potato-quality videos, then pay for legal copies. Platforms like Vudu and Amazon have a great library of movies and shows (even rare films and Disney classics), and they usually come at a reasonable price. You could also check your favorite streaming sites, or double-check on one of the many free (legal) streaming sites that are available to you.

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Profile Photo for Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
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