On Piracy Culture

Art is important, but so are artists.

There are two sides to any debate, and regardless of which one is correct (or in many cases, more correct; not everything is black & white), there needs to be a certain amount of agreement on the topic itself before we can be productive. Bring up piracy and you’re likely to find a fundamental disconnect, with people who torrent movies contorting themselves to reach any and all justifications. While I believe the conversation is more nuanced than simple matters of “do” or “don’t,” especially as someone whose cinematic education began with pirated content, there can’t be a conversation at all until we agree on one basic thing:

Piracy is stealing.

Before you suggest otherwise, I’ve heard every argument to the contrary and have probably even made it myself at some point. Almost none of them hold weight, and even the noblest sounding justifications seem to ignore this one simple fact about pirating media. “Let the underprivileged take refuge in art” is a plea that tugs at the heart-strings, and while I’d be the last person to suggest cultural mirrors should only be a luxury, we need to first reach common ground on what these mirrors even are to begin with, because this is a problem even the privileged perpetuate.

In the case of cinema and all visual art forms, the things people download involve labour. While it’s easy to see blockbusters as calculated products of evil, self-perpetuating conglomerates, we often forget they still depend on hundreds and thousands of below-the-line-artists, with even folks in key positions making far less than your average A-list actor. This is of course to say nothing of independent films, which also fall victim to rampant piracy if they don’t get widespread distribution (Hell, even if they do), and even the workers and artists who don’t benefit directly from ticket sales often find their future employment depending on the success of each project.

While piracy isn’t “stealing” the same way as driving off with someone’s car, it’s a lot like refusing to pay for an hour of massage therapy, wherein you’re taking up someone’s time, effort and expertise, but denying them compensation for their services. In a situation like that, claiming you “wouldn’t have paid for it anyway” isn’t the justification you think it is. If you weren’t able to steal it, one of two things would happen: you would either pay for the experience in question and get something out of it, or you wouldn’t experience it at all. Stealing is a third option that you (and the movie pirates) have introduced into the equation of legally agreed-upon channels.

For some folks, this explanation (which sounds like finger-wagging, which it kind of is) results in a fair bit of cognitive dissonance. I’ve seen even financially well-off people positively shocked at the suggestion that torrenting movies is stealing, or that they’re doing anything remotely unethical. That’s an understandable response from people for whom piracy is normalized, and an ingrained part of the movie watching process as a means to keep up with the culture, regardless of financial standing. People who torrent movies even tell directors and producers over social media, totally unashamed and unaware that what they’re doing is taking money out of people’s pockets. For many, it’s simply the first and most convenient option, and the labour of artists doesn’t even register.

There’s a couple of sides to this point about labour that are worth considering of course. Several people have tried to argue that since this, that or the other amount goes to studios or record labels and not every behind-the-scenes contributor gets paid per purchase, that piracy doesn’t affect anyone but the suits. While true in a handful of cases, what must be kept in mind is this usually only comes up in response to being made aware of the ethics of piracy, like a kind of self-defense mechanism. A supposedly “ethical” reasoning that posits the pirate as fighting corporate power (or even fighting for the rights of the artist) when all they’re doing is stealing content. None of this is going to have any effect on artist contracts or the kinds of deals struck between companies and creators. All it’s going to do is affect the eventual financial take of the product, a hit that conglomerates can often take, but one that inevitably affects individual artists and decision-makers. Again, that’s only when we’re talking about big studio products. Indie films lose a lot to piracy too, and the effect on creators is far more immediate.

All that being said and even understood, the supposed justifications for piracy will likely continue. No one likes to believe they’re committing a crime or hurting artists when they do something as innocuous as watch a movie, but no individual really has access to the bigger picture on a day to day basis. They only see their part in it, their five to fifteen ticket or BluRay dollars withheld from an already six, seven or eight figure revenue, regardless of how much money was spent to create and market a film in the first place, let alone how many others are using the exact same justification.

In 2015, Focus, a film with a reported production budget of $50 million, took in a measly $53 million domestically, and only an additional $105 million elsewhere. At the global average of $4.86 a ticket, that means approximately 32 million people watched it cinemas. The number of people who downloaded the film illegally? 27 million. For every twelve people who bought a ticket to the film, ten people stole it, and it was only the tenth most pirated movie that year.

Of course, maybe that $4.86 figure is the problem for some. In America the average ticket cost is upwards of $8, and factoring in travel, popcorn and what have you, staying in and watching Netflix is a much better deal - though of course, that’s part of why Netflix exists. If doing something else is a less costly alternative, then stealing a movie regardless is a have/eat cake type situation. On one hand, it sounds nastily privileged to say “Hey, if you can’t afford it, too bad!” but the refusal to acknowledge piracy as stealing also comes from plenty of folks for whom it isn’t as much of an issue. I don’t claim to know everyone’s financial situation, but the truth about piracy is it’s easy, and a lot of people do it because downloading a video file lets you watch it at any time and on any device – remind me to tell you about that time a friend downloaded The Revenant when it was playing ten minutes from their house.

Then again, despite not condoning piracy, I also empathize with people who pirate for reasons other than convenience.

Nobody wants to feel culturally isolated, and given that much of American art defines the global mainstream, people outside the US torrenting shows and movies the day they’re released in the States is a fairly common practice. For myself, it’s something that began during my teen years, when the internet was on the up and up, but the legal streaming of movies wasn’t really a thing. Our local video libraries weren’t particularly expansive, and there was no real guarantee of most non-Indian films ever making it here theatrically or on DVD besides your average studio blockbuster. The filmographies of Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson and others would’ve been hidden away from me, and given that each of these would’ve cost about $50 to physically ship and import from abroad (about 25,000 Rupees at the time, nearly a hundred times the cost of a local purchase), I wouldn’t have had those initial years of cultural education that led to my going to film school in the United States. I’ve spoken to college professors this side of the world for whom piracy was a must for the longest time for a proper cinematic syllabus, and even forgetting academic considerations, sometimes people just want to be able to watch a damn movie or TV show.

This isn’t the world we live in anymore. With the advent of streaming and online purchase via Amazon or iTunes, owning the license to view a film no longer requires a physical product – license is a key word here, and it’s what separates uploading a torrent from lending a friend your DVD, other than the number of people one can share with. Granted, it’s also what gets in the way of upgrading technology, since you can’t view an old VHS purchase on a brand-new BluRay player without spending money on a new copy despite being licensed to view it, but that’s a crease being ironed out slowly now that digital access is being included with physical purchase. It’s far from ideal, and there are still regional blocks to total availability, something studios and networks would do well to fix if they want to curb piracy more effectively, but even those can be circumvented with a VPN or a relatively cheap DNS (a service like Getflix costs less than $3 a month), which grant you the same opportunity to stream and purchase media as folks in various other countries through their legal channels. Lack of access was once the biggest justification for piracy, and it’s not nearly as much of a factor as before.

People will still continue to pirate in spite of unfettered access though, at least folks who genuinely aren’t in a position to pay for even one or two films. Ugandan slum studio Wakaliwood and their micro-budget ‘80s action riffs wouldn’t exist without piracy (they can barely afford electricity and running water), and in countries with rampant censorship, sometimes it’s the only option to be able to view a film in its entirety, or at all for that matter. Plus, no amount of moralizing on the subject is should stop a closeted queer kid in the middle of nowhere from secretly torrenting something like Moonlight so their parents don’t ask what they’ve been spending money on, and if I can be so bold as to go back on what I’ve spent the last few thousands words arguing, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world.

Unlike your average torrenter, who argues piracy isn’t stealing but could realistically afford to pay for the movies and music they download, these are situations where “I wouldn’t have paid for it anyway” is probably true, though it more accurately translates to “I couldn’t pay for it even if I wanted to.” This isn’t to say this form of piracy isn’t stealing – it still very much is – but to offer some perspective for people for whom piracy is a normal, everyday habit that they could probably break if they wanted to. Truth be told, I didn’t realize it was stealing either despite being told as such, and it took talking to artists affected by piracy to come around to the idea.

Is there an ethical way to pirate? Well… in theory! Even with online streaming and wider international theatrical rollout, some films will simply not reach audiences in certain corners of the globe, though I did find a recent exchange on the subject amusing enough to share. Nocturnal Animals never released in India, and there’s little chance the DVD or BluRay will ever come out here – plus, given the nudity in the film, it’s likely that even an import might be stopped at the border. Our censorship laws are a whole other issue that I’ve discussed ad nauseam, and to be fair, they’re not really the problem of artists in other countries. The solution, so to speak? A friend of mine who really wanted to watch it managed to find an illegal download, but he bought a ticket to the film at a New York cinema over the internet anyway.

That isn’t to suggest this’ll become some new trend in piracy (that would be spectacular, but let’s be realistic), however the fact that most people including myself would probably turn a blind eye to this specific instance of stealing sort of distills the problem. Experiencing most art is dependent on transaction, and while there are innumerable exceptions to that statement – from a parent telling you a bedtime story to kids in public schools watching Hamilton for free – they’re usually agreed-upon parameters. Consumers of art often forget this, as evidenced by the sheer amount of grumbling that Prince’s music wasn’t available at zero cost after his passing, but art takes effort and is rarely free to produce. Artists and the people funding art get to set the parameters in question, and rightly so.

This does in turn bring up the topic of one’s right to culture, be it a song that’s captured the hearts of millions, or even the Star Wars trilogy in its ostensibly original form, unavailable for legal purchase though available online if you know where to look. Those kids who watched Hamilton for free are lucky, given that theatre is still a medium you can’t digitize (and an expensive medium at that, if we’re talking about Broadway), and the show is sold out for the next few years. People have suggested it be live-streamed regardless, and without harping too much on the rights of artists their justified ability to dictate how their work is seen or heard, this sort of thinking is emblematic of just how accustomed we’ve grown to instant access. It’s all about us now, and a Tarantino or Chris Nolan releasing a film a few days earlier on celluloid – their preferred mode exhibition, albeit one which people have less access to – results in their works being recorded in the cinema and uploaded to torrent sites for those who don’t to wait 48 hours.

In broad terms of what one is entitled to, no, we can’t reasonably expect artists to be okay with us stealing their work, no matter how rich they already might be (we’re usually wrong about that as well). Impatience and inability to afford something aren’t the same thing of course, and there’s no easy solution to art becoming more costly while wages aren’t increasing at an equivalent rate, but we don’t often think about how this is true for the people making films as well. “Just don’t watch what you can’t afford” is at once a statement of privilege, denoting that the “right” to art and entertainment is decided economically, as well as a statement meant to protect the people creating what you watch in the first place, thus justifying the economic basis for that privilege.

Whether or not art is a “right” the same way as expression or a “necessity” the same way as food (it isn’t, but it’s undeniably important), the piracy conversation often boils down to factors outside this question of culture, and that’s the biggest problem facing this “debate.” There cannot be a conversation about the place of art in our lives and how best to provide for both audiences and artists until we come to the agreement that piracy is stealing. There cannot be a discussion about how or why access to cinema is important for education, well-being, or quite simply entertainment, if it comes at the cost of those creating it, and there certainly can’t be more art, better art, and more accessible art if less and less money goes into it for fear of losing hundreds of millions to piracy.