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To Pirate or Not to Pirate

Jan 15, 2013

For many, the question ‘To pirate or not to pirate’ becomes lost in the moral uncertainty and growing prevalence of people turning to their computer for cheap and readily available content. As media companies continue to restrict viewers’ ability to watch, share and experience a particular film, the advent of cheaper and more efficient internet tools are influencing more consumers to start downloading content. Having instant access to content is extremely appealing, especially with the creation of file sharing sites that provide a not-so-underground network of digital media curators. Piracy has become a widely accepted norm in the Middle East and further afield, being linked to a freedom of censorship and in some cases, it can even be an advantage to up-in-coming filmmakers.

Although the common perspective of piracy is that it is the dark underbelly of the internet, sites like Pirate Bay have turned providing content into a community-based activity. Users take pride in the quality of their pirated content, adding logos, and searching for a perfect mix of audio-visual quality and file size. For those who have embraced piracy, this community vibe is extremely apparent not only within the digital sphere but in the real world. Friends and colleagues share films and music via hard drives – this takes information sharing into the real world, allowing it to become a part of a common, social behavior. This is clearly evident in the 29 million American adults who have watched or downloaded illegal films. With this integration into daily life, it is hard for many to understand the illegal aspect of downloading films, music or software. It appears that the anonymity of the Internet and the ease in which one can download films, has skewed the public’s view on the morality of piracy.

The internet now plays host to a world of content – leaving studios and content providers struggling to adapt to a new wave of information sharing. People often download or share films because they wouldn’t have had access to the content otherwise. With various regions, release dates and criteria defining who can watch what and when—it hinders the accessibility of content. This is a significant argument in the Arab world, considering that access to content is very limited and often consists of censored material. Piracy or the sharing of films is prevalent in communities where the supply of content is hindered. Additionally, many audiences are looking for content that is free from censorship. Consumers’ ability to share films is directly linked to their freedom to curate, watch and experience the films that they would have never had access to. Freedom and piracy are closely linked in the Middle East, thus viewers are less likely to surrender the autonomy that technology provides.

From Iraq to Morocco, underground markets provide access to bootlegs of both Hollywood and independent films. Considering that the film industry in the Middle East is still developing, piracy for some new filmmakers can act as an invaluable form of promotion and marketing. The reach of piracy is global and instant—thus uploading films onto a file sharing site can provide international exposure, accessing diverse audiences from around the world. Kenyan filmmaker, Patrick Mureithi has turned to pirates to help promote his film because of budget restrictions. He can be found on twitter openly sharing his work with any interested party. He only asks viewers and film enthusiasts to ‘share the film widely’ and provide their thoughts and insights. Mureithi’s view of distribution is refreshing and instills that the relationship between the content provider and viewer can be both positive and dynamic even if piracy is a key factor.

The subject of piracy and overall internet freedoms have come into debate in recent months – with many internet giants temporarily shutting down their websites in protest to SOPA and PIPA, which were proposed US legislation that have since been defeated. These Acts endeavored to constrict piracy from international sources. Those against the legislation said it would hinder the freedom of the internet. Reaction from the online community was unprecedented, with Google and Wikipedia joining over 7,000 other sites that stopped services in protest to this perceived infringement of online freedoms.

One of the primary arguments against piracy is that downloading films is crippling the film and music industries. The estimated loss of revenue due to piracy is between $200 and $250 Billion; however this number has been consider largely inflated, especially because the stats are offered by an industry that wants to influence public opinion. These numbers are also based on the assumption that if the product were for sale–the consumer would actually purchase it. Most consumers, especially people in the lower income brackets, find that buying films and paying for music is far too expensive. After all, many consumers invest in new technology like the latest laptop or digital media player that allow them to have access to ‘rip’ and share content–so why wouldn’t they.

Considering that there are limited independent screening venues for filmmakers, and the fact that if indie films were to be screen, they would have an extremely limited distribution, piracy may help in the development of a more dynamic film industry by increasing demand among audiences. Developing filmmakers may benefit from the exposure that piracy offers, while other established filmmakers may receive little of the positive side effects that piracy can provide. Overall, piracy will continue to evolve mirroring advances in technology and will hopefully provide some middle ground between the pirates and the film industry in the future.

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