Stolen, The Truth About Piracy (An Essay)
Walk down Canal Street in southern Manhattan on a Sunday afternoon and every direction you look loom countless pirated DVD’s. DVD piracy is a crime, but generally DVD’s are only sold in a few extremely urban areas (Anti). A more important and less understood issue is internet piracy, defined, by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) as:
Downloading or distribution of unauthorized copies of intellectual property such as movies, [or] television…. It is no different from stealing another person’s shoes or stereo, except sometimes it can be a lot more damaging. (Anti)
In recent years the MPAA and other Hollywood studios have launched a massive anti-piracy ad campaign, blaming average Americans and mostly young guys for billions of dollars in media theft (Anti). Jack Valenti, of the MPAA, once said, “We are resolute that we’re going after people who use our material, without permission, in an illegal fashion. We’re going after them every-where they exist (Fox).” Yet internet piracy is not as simple a crime as Valenti discuses. The MPAA’s anti-piracy campaign is unfounded and illogical because the ads contradict known facts about piracy and almost solely blame basement lurking, video game playing, teen guys, when there are many other forms of piracy online.
In the beginning, internet piracy was limited to music downloads and quickly suffered from a barrage of lawsuits. We all know where Napster went (sued to oblivion). Now, with faster internet connections and more intelligent software, sites like YouTube and Bit Torrent are ruling the web’s attention with numerous copyright infringements. Still piracy is not just one evil person’s fault. Some, like Mark Pesce, lecturer and currently a professor at The Australian Film Television and Radio School , think piracy can be good.
In February 2005, YouTube launched with a flurry as its links buzzed around the internet alerting people to videos featuring prodigy electric guitarists and evolving dance forms. Yet YouTube did not hit mega-ultra popularity until Lazy Sunday, an smalltime digital short from Saturday Night Live, was posted (Sydell). The video instantly got millions of views through a viral campaign of college boys and soccer mom’s forwarding the short to everyone they knew. In turn “SNL saw higher ratings than they did in years,” while YouTube got a good deal of “traditional media attention” (Sydell). The illegally pirated clip seemed equally beneficial for YouTube, NBC, and the viewers, who were all excited from the funny yet illegal copyright infringement. Yet “NBC requested the video be taken down,” which seemed beyond silly (Sydell). The clip had already been viewed by most people who cared, which provoked questions like why did NBC wait until after SNL was popular again to shove their lawyers at YouTube? Nonetheless the clip was removed, but recently in an ironic twist, NBC announced a deal with YouTube to show their clips online (Sydell). Unfortunately Lazy Sunday is still not available on YouTube.
Another instance of beneficial piracy came from the joint Sky One-SciFi channel (UK and US) production of Battlestar Galactica. The show premiered in the UK three months before the US, and some American fans were upset (Pesce). Instantly, after the UK premiere, pirated copies of Battlestar Galactica popped up around the web (Pesce). In turn tech savvy Americans downloaded the show months before its US premiere.
Valenti wants people to think piracy is bad and evil, but often internet piracy has the opposite effect. Even though American audiences pirated Battlestar Galactica, they still watched the show when it premiered. Battlestar Galactica achieved the highest ratings ever for the SciFi network with about two to three million viewers, which is enormous for a cable channel (Pesce). As Pesce said, “It seems as though this act of piracy has only been fanning the flames of interest” (Pesce).
However the MPAA ad campaign demonized piracy as the equivalent to stealing a candy bar (Anti). They said piracy not only hurts the wealthy entertainment executives, but also it hurts thousands of working class Americans in the entertainment industry (Anti). This potentially valid point, though, is discredited by the industry leaders.
Recently the Writers’ Guilds of America West and East went on strike, illuminating their underpaid and dire situation with the studios concerning new media distribution (WgaAmerica). “When you go into a store and pay $19.99 for a DVD, [the writers] get a whopping four cents, and then came the internet,” where corporations like Disney and Viacom refused to pay rightful residuals to the content creators (WgaAmerica). Still the media corporations claim that internet value cannot yet be determined, but a few clever writers point out in their Daily Show style rant that Viacom is suing YouTube for one billion dollars over media copyright infringement (Tdswriters).
Furthermore internet distribution profits are skyrocketing for many media corporations. Instead of buying a DVD which cost money to manufacture, ship, and store, viewers can now either download media for a set price from places like Amazon.com and Itunes or they can watch streaming media with ads for free. Either way the studios make an extraordinary profit off these new media distribution vehicles. In one interview, a reporter asked Bob Iger, President and CEO of Disney, “How much [revenue] is coming in from digital?” He replied, “Its about a billion five”(Strikingwriter2007). Summer Redstone, Chairman of Viacom, was caught saying, “Viacom will double its revenues this year from digital” (Strikingwriter2007). On top of that, Les Moonves’, CEO of CBS, remarked that:
Instead of twenty seven million people watching [CSI], twenty million will watch it [on TV] and five million will watch it on the internet, but we will get paid for it regardless…. We as the network, as the studio, as the producers, the production company. We are going to get paid no matter where you get it from. (Strikingwriter2007)
In, what some moviegoers would call, a roaring-rampaging and ironic climax, it seems the studios are just as guilty of piracy as the young teenage boys stealing Mp3’s and episodes of Lost, because neither directly pays the media’s creators.
The studios get free advertising for their shows on YouTube and since online piracy can benefit shows through viewer increases, it seems one of the anti-piracy campaign’s purposes was to diffuse the studio’s competition in the illegal online market. Additionally the ads pointed an iron finger at internet piracy and numerous Americans while diverting attention away from the studios, who committed the same malicious act. One can only wonder, who invented this genius plan? Clearly the studios have their own Carl Roves at work here. Still everyone is probably guilty of a little hypocrisy. So who is the real pirate, you or the studios?