In case you hadn't heard, The Avengers crushed box office records this weekend to take home more than $200 million domestic for Disney and Marvel Comics. But if you're not part of the Internet's seedy underbelly, you probably didn't know that a pirated version of the superhero team-up movie appeared on BitTorrent networks a full week before the May 4th release. Even with a massive amount of illegal downloading, The Avengers assembled to crush the popular wisdom of piracy opponents.
According to statistics from TorrentFreak, the camcorder video of a pre-release screening was downloaded more than half a million times in the week leading up to The Avengers' release, with 100,000 downloads coming from the United States. Even assuming that everyone who saw the low-quality "CAMrip" declined to see the movie in theaters (a rather large and almost certainly incorrect assumption), the net loss to the movie's gross earnings would have been less than one half of one percent. Other recently leaked blockbusters like Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 in 2010 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine the year before met with a similar lack of detrimental effects.
This certainly doesn't negate the fact that copyright infringement in general and piracy in particular are illegal and immoral. (I'm giving about half a million of you the wagging finger of shame.) But it does demonstrate that a major blockbuster probably won't be derailed by the movie leaking early. As TorrentFreak notes, piracy of DVD and Blu-ray movies represents a much more substantial monetary threat to film production studios, since high-quality versions available for free, or for vastly reduced amounts of money via bootleggers, can compete directly with home video sales.