Online Piracy, One Commodore’s Opinion

Yo ho ho and all that nonsense,

In this post I’ll be talking about the sharing of information and media, principally music, movies, and television. This is not a tips and tricks guide to getting what you want without paying; it’s my observations on society’s reactions to piracy, industry’s reactions, some historical examples of similar issues, and the effects of piracy on the average pirate. That’s a lot to cover, so let’s jump in.

What is piracy?

For the purposes of this post, we’ll define piracy in a general sense: the sharing or duplication of material with others without the consent of the creator of that material. Creator includes whoever has distribution rights of the material since, consent passes to them. So, this post is not pirated, Netflix is not pirated, but any movie, episode of TV, or song you download without paying for is, 99.9999% of the time, pirated material.

Piracy Is Not New

Remember VCRs? Watching those christmas specials and fast forwarding through the commercials? How about recording your favourite songs off of the radio on a casette tape? Well technically, that’s piracy folks. The movie and to a lesser extent the music industry were not happy with these developments at all, as we’ll see soon.

Some History (Heavily Paraphrased)

We live in a capitalist society. That means to live you need to have money, and if you are a creator of things, be it paintings, sculpture, film, photos, music, or something else, you need to be paid for what you create (this will be covered further in my upcoming post on creativity).

Two hundred years ago, if you wanted to hear music, it was live. In my opinion far more people had a reason to learn an instrument, if for no other reason than to entertain themselves. Almost every public establishment had some form of musician, from saloons to high class restaurants to hotel lobbies. At this point, movies haven’t been invented, so plays and *overly dramatic british voice*, “the theeahtorr,” are the equivalent. And software or games? You hired people to make life easier I suppose.

Let’s jump ahead to the industrial revolution. Inventions are sprouting up everywhere that are threatening the livelihoods of artisans by making them obsolete. As an example, Singer’s sewing machines received a tremendous backlash from the seamstress and tailor communities since his product had the potential to put over 90% into early retirement (the fastest seamstress could do 40-50 stitches per minute, while Singer’s machine could do 900). Personally I can’t think of a world without sewing machines, and am grateful that I can clothe myself so affordably. I do regret that I can’t get a hand made suit like I could have in those days, but in today’s dollars I think I’d still be looking at $1000-2000.

Let’s jump again! It’s the turn of the twentieth century. Thanks to Tesla, electricity is becoming practical, and Marconi has made long distance wireless communication possible. Edison is on the scene, and his inventions are really shaking things up. He’s invented a device for recording music and another for recording video. Interestingly, there was a backlash from sheet music publishers who were worried that Edison’s recording device would put them out of business.

More importantly, film is born, and it’s so expensive that to actually produce it as mass media huge investments are required. I can’t do this topic justice, so if you want more information check this guy out. Point is Hollywood ended up owning the way movies are made. The world today sees movies that titillate and appeal to our baser instincts for the sake of profit. More about that later.

Radio befalls a similar fate. Eventually radio moves from being something where you put a pole on a hill and you have a radio station, to a regulated system to costly to run without sponsorship. Regulation here boiled down to having to pay to use specific frequency bands to broadcast over an area (e.g. AM 940). In theory, this makes tons of sense and I agree with it. The problem starts when sponsors want to maximize their listener base, which leads to our modern day ‘Pop’, ‘Best of the 80s, 90s and now!’, ‘Classic Rock’, ‘Oldies’, and ‘Public Radio’ stations. Unless you live in a city with over one million people, you’ll be lucky to have stations dedicated to Classical, Jazz, Indie, Alternative, Techno, Electronica, Metal, or World; because it simply isn’t profitable.

Alright, I’m going to skip the software part of piracy, but suffice it to say that from the birth of the internet free sharing has been a philosophical idea people have made their camp in.

Present Day

Today, we can already see the effects piracy has had on the industry. In 2009, the movie Avatar revived 3D, a technology still largely exclusive to theaters. Companies make most of their money, and all of their budgeting decisions on ticket sales. 3D allowed theaters to stay a step ahead of home theaters, for a time at least.

Another effect besides technology is massive declines in cost. CDs cost a fraction of what they used to, and now you can rent movies in HD online for just four dollars. Software is cheaper too. Apple’s OS X Lion sold for $30, and it’s newest Mountain Lion is selling for $20. Compare this to Tiger (2005) which had an MSRP of $130. I can assure you that the software didn’t cost 75% less to create, but Apple recognizes that in a world where spending nothing to 99 cents on a program is normal, $130 isn’t going to work.

Societal Perspectives on Piracy

Generally, people believe piracy is wrong; and generally people think speeding is wrong. When I was in college I earned a reputation as a man who could ‘get things’. You want the second season of Captain Planet? Done. You want the original version of Ghost in the Shell (Kôkaku kidôtai) in the original Japanese, and in HD? You got it. A set of acoustic recordings of Sigur Rós? My pleasure. People asked me because I could do it, and because they wanted to distance themselves from the affair. I got a kick out of it.

Most of the things I dug up in those days were so obscure they didn’t exist anywhere else. Only because some guy in Sweden had a copy on his computer could I too take in these pieces of entertainment. Of course there were the more common things like current American television shows, but that was played off as ‘well I would have watched it on TV, but I was busy at the time.’ If it wasn’t for piracy, I don’t think TiVO, and later PVRs, would have become as ubiquitous as they are today.

Why I Like Being A Pirate

There are many reasons, but here are a few:

  • I have opinions regarding music/film that can be backed up. I have watched over 700 movies by now, some were real gems, and most I never would have seen due to availability. I’m not saying it would have been impossible for me to watch ‘Funny Face’ with Audrey Hepburn, just that I would not have marked my calendar for the once in a year time it’s on TV, or mail ordered the Audrey Hepburn collection in hopes that it would be good. Music follows a similar pattern.
  • People can rely on me to advise them on movies. I like being able to help people. I like saving them money. I like telling them that ‘Fast 5’ or ‘Expendables 2’ are not worth it, but maybe ‘Where Eagles Dare’, ‘The Great Escape’, or ‘Predators’ are (for their tastes).
  • I know when I’m being conned: The music industry doesn’t want you to know about any music they aren’t selling. Hipsters are the first to say that, albeit condescendingly. Now getting your music out there is easy enough for anyone to do. The number of styles are as numerous as there are people making it. But I digress.
  • I wouldn’t be who I am today: Every time I learn a new computer language, I used pirated software. Assignments from school, same. Music I’m listening to? Also pirated. Almost everything on my computer, with the notable exception of video games and the operating system itself, was not paid for.

The behaviour I’m modeling has forced dramatic shifts in the way media is produced and distributed. It’s led to crowd funded television, free CD promotions for live shows, and (one day) a better enriched public.

Imagine a world where movies had to be innovative and original, where endless sequels would stop and TV shows wouldn’t make money after 7 seasons (it’s rare outside of America for shows to run as long as they do, with the notable exceptions of Dr. Who and Japanese shows based on popular manga series). This is the kind of world I want to live in, when I hear that Fast & Furious 6 is coming out next year, my heart sinks. We can do better! Inform yourselves, and then:

Use that information to vote with your money. It’s capitalism so that’s how they react, to money. Don’t wait for DVD, don’t wait for the dollar theater after the accountants stop caring. If you want to see more awesome stuff, pay for it. I know this seems like a sudden switch from all the free talk I was making earlier, but I want to be clear. I pay for videogames, especially from indie developers. I pay for concerts and performances, and I pay for tickets to the big theater experiences. These are the things I believe are worthwhile and we need more of. That’s why I’m voting for them. And if it wasn’t for piracy, and pirates, and this guy again, I never would have known any of this.

Closing Thoughts

So really I’ve only scratched the surface. But we’re talking about seven years of personal experience and over a century of deeply mixed social, economic, and political history. Piracy will never go away entirely, it will continue to cost companies money, but never so much that they will all fail. Hopefully, people will regain an appreciation for live music since it’s somewhat scarce, and musicians can find money there, doing what they love. Hopefully, people will go to the movies, but wait to see cookie cutter style film on DVD, because they aren’t worth it.

Ultimately, piracy is a threat to a norm, just as sewing machines, phonographs, the radio, and VCRs were threats to seamstresses, musicians, newspapers, and theaters. But in time norms shift, and society adjusts to accommodate it, as we’ve begun to see with digital distribution, the removal of DRM, and the plummeting prices of songs, film, and software.

Acknowledgements

I have to thank my friend Andrew ‘Birchy’ Birchall for introducing me to electronic music, it changed my life. While I’ll never sit on the bleeding edges of the genre with him, I can enjoy the more mature, collected work produced later.

I also have to thank Bob ‘MovieBob’ Chipman, for his extensive insights on Hollywood. MovieBob is a movie critic for The Escapist and also has a weekly show entitled ‘The Big Picture‘ which I linked to twice in this post and discusses topics surrounding pop culture, the internet, movies, comic books, television, and whatever else crosses his mind.

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