Creator Spotlight: Richard Schenkman

Piracy Works for No Man

This blog is a part of a series covering the impacts of digital piracy on individual creators, filmmakers, producers, and artists. This blog was crafted in collaboration with CreativeFuture.

At its best, the internet is a space for creators that creates space – the symbiosis between creators and the World Wide Web spawns new ideas, creative mediums, and collaborations at high-speed. But this resource bares a double edge that cuts deep. The web at its worst, the same resource artists rely on to share their work, hosts a number of bad actors seeking to prey on their success.

Digital piracy deprives creators of a safe space to distribute their work online; we found that approximately 26.6 billion viewings of U.S.-produced movies and 126.7 billion viewings of U.S.-produced TV episodes are pirated digitally each year, mostly from outside the U.S. And while the impact of thousand or so pirated views might not be felt by a big studio, it could rob an independent creator of their livelihood.

One such victim was Richard Schenkman. In 2007, Schenkman released a science-fiction film called The Man from Earth. It’d been a dream of his since 1997 when he first read the script, written by the acclaimed Jerome Bixby. The story follows a history professor who, at his farewell party, reveals to his colleagues that he is a “Cro-Magnon”, a prehistoric caveman that has lived for 14 millennia.

Dubbed by IGN as “intellectual sci-fi,” the film was a hit – viewers launched The Man from Earth into the top 100 science-fiction films of all-time on IMDB, where it still remains to this day. At the Rhode Island Film Festival that same year, it won the grand prize for Best Screenplay and first place for Best Feature. Needless to say, the film’s success was beyond anything Richard initially imagined. However, the vast majority of viewers didn’t pay to watch it – it gained traction through torrent sites, generating attention to the film through word-of-mouth but no revenue.

Fast forward to 2017, when Schenkman and crew released a sequel, The Man from Earth: Holocene. Piracy hits them even harder this time around. Over those ten years, a new piracy ecosystem developed by way of illegal streaming and illegal streaming devices, or ISDs. As of 2018, Holocene had been illegally downloaded one million times, a staggering number that doesn’t even factor in illegal streams, which are exponentially more likely than illegal downloads. To try to get ahead of piracy, Schenkman shared his film on pirate sites for legal download and included a personal donation request. “I had explained in our donation message that we were happy to share the movie with the whole world, asking only that if people liked it, and if they could afford to do so, that they make some kind of donation,” Schenkman wrote in a blog for CreativeFuture. “The one thing we asked people to do was not share the movie for free without this message. That’s it.”

But the worst was yet to come – Green Bay, a Russian “distribution company”, created a dubbed version of the film, complete with professional Russian voiceovers, and replaced their donation request with advertisements, monetizing the film to their selfish reward. “People who choose to pirate a movie, whether they are a criminal operation like Green Ray or just a regular individual internet user, fail to grasp (or willfully ignore) that while it may be free for them to watch that movie, it certainly wasn’t free to make,” Schenkman said. “The lion’s share of films that get released aren’t studio blockbusters, but super low-budget projects from independent filmmakers who struggled just to get their films produced in the first place – and who are very lucky if they break even on them.”

The economic impacts of piracy are exponential – but the incremental impacts felt by independent filmmakers and creators hit hardest. They discourage creators from investing in their craft out of fear of theft, and rob them of income and livelihood. It’s time for our policymakers to step up and step in – expanded enforcement strategies are long past due. Let’s mobilize to make the web a safe space for creators.


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Sophia Robichaux is the Associate Communications Manager of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Global Innovation Policy Center.

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