We Think It Started With: Illegal downloading and DVD ripping.
Illegal downloading has been a thorn in Hollywood's side since the advent of peer-to-peer sharing, and as we all have undoubtedly seen in the pre-rolls for DVDs, downloading is the same as stealing somebody's car. Studios treat the issue as a modern phenomenon, claiming they are now losing millions because of this new technology that suddenly lets people consume entertainment without paying.
It's hard to compete with this.
But we should have known that man's desire to get something for nothing predates BitTorrent by a long shot.
It Actually Started: In the 1500s.
During Queen Elizabeth's reign, theater saw a huge boost in popularity, since the queen herself was a huge supporter of the arts.
Via Wikimedia Commons
And a huge supporter of pumping iron, judging from her massive biceps.
An established theater company's most valuable assets were the complete copies of its plays. Copyright laws didn't exist yet, so if another theater troupe got a copy of the whole play, there was nothing stopping them from performing it as their own. As you can imagine, this took a bite out of profits and prestige for the original company.
To protect their investments, theaters instituted what were essentially the first strict DRM measures. Theaters gave actors only copies of the scenes they were in; the only people with full scripts were the senior company members.
George Lucas adopted this policy and added further security by writing scripts so shitty that no one would ever want to steal them.
But as with any DRM system, pirates found a way around it. The demand for complete plays led to the publishing of pirated copies called "bad quartos," created when somebody would sneak into the play with quill and paper and frantically write down the lines as they were spoken. Or sometimes, they'd just pay off actors from the troupe to write down the lines from memory. Then the bootleg script was sold to the highest bidder.
But even back then, you took a chance buying bootlegged copies of anything. Just as movie downloads can never be as good as seeing it in a theater, bad quartos were never as good as the originals. The problems ranged from erroneous lines to entire scenes or characters disappearing. Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew has three surviving versions, all of which involve different characters in pivotal scenes and subplots that are left dangling. It'd be as if 400 years from now, the only surviving copy of The Lord of the Rings was one shot with a cellphone, with some dude's head in the way the whole time.
2Cheap Knockoffs Trying to Cash in on Blockbusters
We Think It Started With: Straight-to-DVD "Mockbusters" like Transmorphers and Sunday School Musical.
If there is anything sadder than a cheap movie knockoff, it'd have to be, we don't know, some kind of terrible childhood disease. Today every blockbuster drags in its wake countless zero-budget ripoffs with similar titles and covers, meant to confuse elderly or stoned customers into buying the wrong DVD.
Not only do ridiculous versions of Western films turn up in places like China, but in the U.S., you have Asylum Films, a studio with a huge library of movies designed to go directly to video and scrape a little cash off of the famous franchise. So when Battle: Los Angeles hit theaters, Asylum crapped out Battle of Los Angeles.
Via The Asylum
You'll never know the difference.
If you've ever heard someone say that constant remakes and sequels are the biggest sign of Hollywood's creative bankruptcy, you have to admit that this is a few levels lower than that.
It Actually Started: In the 1800s.
Back when movies were called books, the most popular ones weren't released all at once. Serial novels were more like TV shows; they were sold a few chapters at a time and released every few weeks so people had to keep buying them to find out what happened. These books were enormously popular and were written by reputable authors like Charles Dickens. They cost about 12 cents for every few chapters.
Predictably, to cash in on serial novel sales, smaller printing companies started publishing books that came to be known as "penny dreadfuls." These were cheap books that cost only a penny to buy, were printed on low-quality paper and told shitty, two-dimensional stories ripping off the premises of the popular 12-cent serials.
Via Wikimedia Commons
To be fair, that does look kind of kickass.
Full novels during the 1800s also did the Transmorphers thing; more than three dozen novels came out at nearly the exact same time involving journeying to the center of the Earth. The "hollow Earth" fiction basically started after an American soldier, John Cleves Symmes Jr., proposed a real-life expedition to the "interior world" through holes in the North and South poles. Despite being completely insane, this idea influenced Edgar Allan Poe to write his only complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which in turn inspired dozens of similar stories borrowing the plot, the most famous being by Jules Verne and the weirdest probably being by S. Byron Welcome, who made a story about going to the center of the Earth an allegory for tax proposals, which we can only imagine was thoroughly riveting.
"But as a parallel argument, I feel it fails, since he appears to have no understanding of higher math--"
"Honey, let me stop you right there so I can go die of boredom."
Additionally, as aggravating at the recent surge in vampire popularity might seem, it helps to know that the same popularity has been ebbing and flowing for more than a century. After the (arguably) first vampire story, The Vampyre, was written in 1819, a wave of vampire stories followed, including the penny dreadful story Varney the Vampire and a novel you may have heard of by Bram Stoker called Dracula. All of which never would have existed without an unapologetic willingness to steal a plot.