Downloading Star Wars: Legal at Last, After Years of Massive Piracy

The force has been strong on illicit torrent websites

Jar Jar Binks, perhaps the least popular character in the Star Wars movies that will be available online for the first time.

Jar Jar Binks, perhaps the least popular character in the Star Wars movies that will be available online for the first time.

Photo by Keith Hamshere. Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM.

The six-film Star Wars saga will become available via iTunes and Google Play on Friday, marking the first time audiences will be able to download the movies without breaking the law. If Walt Disney Studios, Lucasfilm, and 20th Century Fox manage to sell legitimate digital copies with anything like the speed of pirated downloads, the belated retail exercise would be a big success. 

Each film—from 1977's A New Hope to 2005's Revenge of the Sith—has been downloaded with help from torrenting websites from 1,500 to 3,000 times per day, according to estimates from file-sharing blog TorrentFreak. Even at the low end of the range, that adds up to more than a half-million copies each year. If the official Star Wars films sold that many copies for $20 apiece, the three studios that own pieces of the series would share a $46 million take after the online stores took their cuts. 

Star Wars tends to get downloaded more than other films from the same era, "in part," says the editor of TorrentFreak, who goes by the name Ernesto Van Der Sar, "because the average BitTorrent downloader is more interested in sci-fi—and due to their classic status." 

Up until this point, the owners of Star Wars have fought to keep the series off the Internet. In 2005, eight people were arrested in California for taking a copy of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith from a post-production facility and uploading it to the Internet before it was released. The man who directly uploaded the film, Marc Hoaglin, pleaded guilty to federal copyright infringement and was sentenced to probation.

Star Wars fans have tried to fill the online vacuum following the release of the three-film prequel series from 1999 to 2005. Topher Grace, the actor from That 70s Show and Interstellar, cut all three films into a single 85-minute movie and showed it in private screenings. The reedited movie became a cult classic of sorts, proving to annoyed die-hards that director George Lucas hadn’t done a good job with his own material. Few people saw it, however, presumably because Grace couldn’t get permission to show the film publicly. When a different version was made last year and posted to Vimeo, it was quickly removed. 

The versions of the films that will be released on Friday will offer various bonus features such as deleted scenes and commentary. These extras are common in such reissues because consumers need a reason to buy something they’ve already seen. This release is intended to capitalize on excitement over the coming installment of the series, slated for release in December. There’s no information yet about when the forthcoming blockbusters will available for download, legitimate or not.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE