‘Harry Potter’ Leak Seems More Like Publicity Than Piracy

The first 36 minutes of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I suddenly popped up on Bittorrent sites Tuesday, just a few days before its global premiere. If Warner Bros. (NYSE: TWX) didn’t intentionally leak the footage, well, maybe they should have, dammit!

Suspicious minds like pre-eminent piracy watchdog Torrentfreak can’t help but wonder whether a major studio has finally decided to test a theory long held by copyright infringers everywhere: Distributing a movie in the backwaters of the internet may actually provide more of a marketing boost to a film than a revenue drain.

Given the timing of the piracy and the duration of footage in this instance, it’s not the craziest notion. Releasing 36 minutes rather than the whole movie is a way of whetting appetites without satisfying them entirely–for that you’ll need to fork over at least $10 in theaters. And with just 48 hours until Potter starts unspooling, it’s just the kind of pre-release jolt that would have been ineffective as a marketing tool were it advanced far earlier.

There’s even some precedent here: The first 13 minutes of Lionsgate’s Killers was given to its star, Ashton Kutcher, to distribute to the millions who make up his mega-popular Twitter cult. Of course, Killers turned out to be one of the biggest turkeys at the box office this year.

Potter, on the other hand, is as durable a box-office franchise as they come, and a piracy magnet to match; the last installment, Half Blood Prince, racked up 7.9 million downloads in 2009, enough to notch No. 7 on the most-pirated films of last year.

Warner Bros. is better known for playing defense online when it comes to its blockbusters. The studio went to extraordinary lengths to protect The Dark Knight in 2008, only to see that film not only become the biggest hit at the box-office that year, but the most-pirated film of 2008 as well.

If Warner Bros. is really behind this, they’re putting up a beaut of a front. The studio released a statement Tuesday: “This constitutes a serious breach of copyright violation and theft of Warner Bros. property. We are working actively to restrict and/or remove copies that may be available. Also, we are vigorously investigating this matter and will prosecute those involved to the full extent of the law.”

Psst, Warner Bros. Have you checked the marketing department?