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On The Ship: An Introduction to Piracy

Jan 13, 2013

Since the invention of the cassette tape the idea of copying, remixing and duplicating the work of artists became a socially-accepted norm. As technology advanced, it put the ability to curate and create content in the hands of the consumer, and with this freedom viewers and listeners began to share and recommend content. This ‘word of mouth’ introduction to artists and filmmakers via mediums such as DVDs, VHSs, CDs and cassettes, began to create, and is still creating, an underground culture where ‘buying’ content was replaced with the idea of ‘sharing’ content. This perspective of ‘sharing’ was further influenced by sites like ‘Napster’, ‘Kazza’ and ‘Pirate Bay’, which replaced buying bootlegged copies of movies on the street by providing access to virtually everything via download, file sharing and content streaming sites. These sites were born out of media companies’ slow response to the movement of digital distribution, giving the pirates a competitive edge. Pivotal to these sources of free content was the peer-to-peer element, allowing people looking for content to be connected with those sharing it. Regardless of the evolution of websites that enabled piracy to expand rapidly, the effect is certain: piracy negatively impacts independent filmmakers and Arab artists from throughout the region by hindering their ability to recoup much needed income and establish a sustainable film industry.

Piracy continues to change our relationship with content and the artists who create it. With this change in mentality, consumers question if it is worth paying the retail price for a film when laptops and new technology allow us to access the content for free. This shift was a turning point in the relationship between the consumer and content provider. Within the Middle East, this change can negatively influence the development of an evolving film industry. If the films of Arab filmmakers are pirated this can hinder their revenue sources – and impact their ability to create new films.

Part of the issue is that viewers of films now defined their own terms, no longer needing to go to a store or specific location. Industry representatives rebelled against this disruption of power through the use of poorly produced commercials—introducing audiences to the people behind the films, and by questioning the moral fabric of those who have decided to click the download button. Lawyers representing the film and music industry also tried suing individual people in an attempt to insight fear; they even tried suing young kids and teenagers and in public opinion, the aggressive record industry was framed as the Goliath.

Although the moral imperative ‘to download or not to download’ was brought to the forefront of popular consciousness–one thing is certain, and it is that piracy changed the industry. Without the disruptive nature of the download revolution, distributors would not have been so ready to make a deal with platforms such as ‘iTunes’ and ‘Netflix’. The advent of user-friendly, easy to access online marketplaces like iTunes allowed users to download and even stream content legally. The reach of iTunes can be seen in the sheer number of downloads, which is now over 10 billion. iTunes success shows that by using a convenient platform and offering content at the right price point, many consumers are willing to pay. With 28 million songs and 45,000 movies, iTunes’ accessibility is one of the best deterrents to piracy.

The revolution of piracy changed the habits of viewers and influenced those providing content to better reflect the needs of their consumers. Many viewers and film enthusiasts within the Middle East turn to piracy as it, until recently, provided the only means of accessing uncensored content from local and international filmmakers. Looking more extensively at piracy in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is ranked in the top ten countries for piracy with 35% of people downloading content illegally. On a global scale the Middle East and Africa are ranked fourth overall with 58% of people engaging in content piracy. With the extensive breadth of piracy’s impact throughout the region, more needs to be done to influence consumers and change their behaviours.

As a result of the changing mindset of film enthusiast around the world, companies began to comply and offer services like Video On Demand (VOD), which give consumers instant access to content. Carine Chaiban, Director of Acquisitions at Intigral commented on this new wave of experiencing content:

Three years ago no one knew about VOD or the practice of buying video-on-demand rights in the Middle East. There was no platform offering it. Now you see companies offering VOD everywhere, allowing viewers to consume content on their many devices. In my experience, the Middle East is driven by free content. The challenge that providers are facing is getting people to pay for content, and if we don’t release a movie with multiple platforms, by the second day it is up on illegal channels of distribution.

By making content more accessible it helps reduce the risks of piracy for the content owner, however, it by no means eliminates it. This change in behaviour among viewers and content providers is largely influenced by the accessibility that piracy gives consumers. Once viewers experience downloading a film in twenty minutes their relationship to the product is irreparably changed. The result of this shift is that studios and media providers have to quickly conform to this ease of accessibility. Some feel that the root of piracy is stealing, but the debate is more complex as content owners have been fearful of the future; instead of embracing technology, they have been ultra-reluctant. Content owners need to better understand the demographic and generational shifts of their audiences.

The older generations are running most media companies and are more familiar with buying their music by sifting through vinyl records. As result, they are disconnected from the new generation of consumers who can move 5000 mp3’s onto their iPod with the click of a mouse. This generation wants to get their music and movies when and where they want them. The record and movie industries and filmmakers need to make their content available digitally and at a reasonable price – and when they do, consumers, media companies, and artists will benefit from this shift.

Regardless, of what side of the piracy boat you are on–it is certain that it has helped transform the ways in which people view content. The debate regarding piracy is ongoing; however, without changes to online piracy, filmmakers in the Middle East will continue to struggle with the development of their craft and creating a sustainable film industry. Tackling piracy continues to be relevant in a region where if nothing is done, filmmakers will continue to face challenges in creating their narratives and having them seen by international audiences. Ultimately, the reach of piracy in the Middle East will define the future of filmmaking in the region.

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