The pirates make quick work of mainstream cinema. Press screeners, studio work prints, in-theater camcorder shots, streaming web rips and clones of warehouse Blu-Rays all make their way to the underground torrent networks weeks ahead of official release dates. Arthouse flicks can take longer, but with time almost any movie with a distributor, no matter how obscure, gets digitized, compressed, and posted illegally online.
Video art is a harder target. Take, for example, Matthew Barney's five-part Cremaster cycle. Named after a muscle in the penis, and loaded with striking, sexually-charged imagery, Cremaster earned Barney comparisons to surrealist masters like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali. Praise wasn't universal—many critics were repelled by Barney's lack of subtlety, and his self-congratulatory tone—but the work crossed over into mainstream popularity, and this made it a natural target for the pirates.
So how to find a copy? In 2002, Barney released the original Cremaster cycle in a limited edition of 20, selling copies of the complete DVD set for over $100,000. By 2007, Sotheby's was auctioning off a single copy of Cremaster 2 for more than half a million. And, seeking to preserve the value of the work, Barney has promised never to release the series to mass-market DVD. As he told an interviewer in 2006: "It's not right for them to be available to be owned in an unlimited way after they've been sold in a limited way."
In the age of digital reproduction, Barney's explanation sounded more like a challenge. Cremaster 2, 3 and 4 all appeared online as early as 2008; in late 2014, a cloned DVD of Cremaster 1 was mysteriously posted to Pass the Popcorn, an invitation-only movie tracker. (In the film, two Goodyear blimps and a synchronized dance troupe re-enact the process of human ovulation.)
That leaves Cremaster 5: a climactic opera about a pair of descending testicles, still available only as a low-quality VHS rip. The work is still out there and, digital or otherwise, perhaps someday soon the reproductive cycle will be complete.