From Sundance to the Oscars: How Long is BitTorrent’s Tail? just released lots of data on the effect piracy has on the Oscars, with details about every nominated movie since 2004. It’s a great resource for everyone wanting to dive into the nitty-gritty of pre- and post-release piracy. Here’s the nutshell version for the rest of us: most Oscar-nominated blockbusters are available on torrent sites in high-quality versions before the event itself, and many of them can be downloaded before members of the Academy receive their copy in the mail.

These results seem to be in stark contrast to Tim Wu’s findings, who recently scoured the net for Sundance films and then wrote about it for Slate. Wu’s search was fruitless, leading him to believe that “the online pirate world and the Sundance world are, as far as I can tell, separate domains.” Could it be that the world of online piracy has a short tail, neglecting niche and art-house films just like your local megaplex?

Wu certainly believes this to be the case. He wrote in Slate that “film pirates are not predators but parasites. They do not roam around looking for new and unknown films to eat, but rather prey on big films with name recognition.” Wu does have a point when it comes to big parts of the release scene, which are the folks who pirate many of the movies in the first place before they find their way onto sites like The Pirate Bay. Many release groups love be the first to get their hands on a new Hollywood blockbuster. The bigger the movie, the greater the challenge.

The very nature of the BitTorrent protocol itself tips the balance towards mass-market movie fare. BitTorrent has been designed to efficiently distribute massive amounts of data within a short time frame. Downloads get faster when there are more users available, and they slow down once people stop sharing. It’s essentially a short-tail protocol that quite naturally works better for Oscar smash hits then for unknown Sundance flicks.
However, the BitTorrent protocol is only one part of the equation. BitTorrent wouldn’t work without trackers and torrent sites, and this is where movie fans come into the picture. Tim Wu searched on The Pirate Bay, Mininova, and other popular torrent sites for this and last year’s Sundance hits, but he failed to dive into piracy driven by enthusiasts who form their own communities away from the popular sites.

There are at least half a dozen torrent sites that specialize on indie and art-house movies. Many of them are private, only admitting new users after they have been vouched for by other members. Some sites specifically ban the upload of popular fare. The rules from one of these sites read:

“No mainstream. No Hollywood blockbusters, unless they’re at least thirty years old. (…) The primary focus of this site is not simply to provide file-sharing infrastructure; it is to build a cohesive community capable of sustaining a collective digital archive of rare, unusual, classic, and fringe culture artifacts.”

In addition to this, there are dozens of sites that cater to specific cinematic subcultures. There are sites for Bollywood movies, Hong Kong action flicks, Anime, sports and educational material. There is even a site with thousands of users uploading B-Movies from around the world. Getting access to these sites isn’t always easy, but once you’re in you’ll feel like in movie lovers’ long tail heaven.

Case in point: Search for Sundance movies on one of these sites that shall remain unnamed, and you’ll find six of the films that entered that festival’s documentary competition in 2007 alone, along with a couple of last year’s dramatic works, as well as dozens more that have premiered at Sundance in recent years.

Most of these movies might never find their way onto The Pirate Bay, but you probably won’t find them in your local Blockbuster either. Maybe online piracy is really not that different from any other long-tail economy: You have to put some work into finding the good stuff.