Friday, 27 January 2012

Are you a pirate?

Copyright and piracy facilitated by the internet is a hot topic right now.  Usually the discussion is framed in terms of music, movies and television shows.  I download music that I have paid for regularly.  I have not yet downloaded a movie or a television show - I tend to buy DVDs - but with the acquisition of a smart television, I can see that changing.  In fact, I won't even visit the local video store, because I can rent movies online via my television and have them delivered straight to the television itself.  That's less stuff to have hanging around.

It's been interesting hearing people on the radio justify their decisions to pirate material.  They explain that they always buy CDs from the local band when they're at the gig, but are happy to pirate from bigger bands because the band can afford it, or the band won't miss it.  Or if it's a movie, they don't pirate Australian content, but Hollywood is okay to rip off.

I really hate these arguments.  These arguments make me yell at the radio.

As an artist myself, I value the work of artists.  I understand what it takes to create something original and how hard it is to make a living out of that.  I just don't understand the view that once an artist is successful they suddenly become worthy of less respect and the artistic merit of their work is of no consequence.  This says a lot about the position of art and artists in our world.  Art is a commodity which we consume.  The consumption process has become quicker and more direct because of the internet.  It's often become cheaper too, but clearly not cheap enough for some people.

There are lots of incentives for people to steal artists' work.  Apart from the obvious one of cost, copyright restrictions and release dates for new material have not caught up with the technology and fail to acknowledge that we really do live in a global village and people want to see the new season of "Mad Men", "True Blood" or whatever else takes their fancy NOW.  Not three months after the other people have seen it and given away the ending!

Then I started to think about this argument in the context of books.  I've been an avid reader since the moment I knew the alphabet.  I buy books, borrow books from the library and a couple of years ago all the birthday gifts I received were books or vouchers for books. (Oh happy day!) Some books I hang onto, others I turn over through a local second hand book store, some I lend to friends and others I pass on to friends with no expectation of their return.  In the latter two cases, my friends have the ability to read the book (ie consume the artistic product) without paying for the privilege or contributing anything to the author.  Yet, I can't imagine an author being unhappy in the knowledge that their books were being widely shared.  I'm not sure what happens with author royalties when a book is resold.

So isn't lending a book to someone to read a form of piracy?  I'd be devastated if I became a criminal because I swap books within my circle of friends. Although the difference might be that most people don't photocopy a book when they lend it to their friends, so there is still only one copy, which was originally purchased. One of the limitations with my conversion to an e-reader is that fact that I can no longer lend books to my friends.  I can borrow e-books from the library however.  I'm yet to do this because none of the e-books available to borrow are remotely appealing.

On reflection, my boarding school was a hot bed of criminals flagrantly breaching copyright.  The greatest invention at the time was the double cassette player/recorder.  It made the making of a mix tape so much easier.  And the art of recording songs off the actual radio, minimising the announcer talking over the intro or the ending can not be underestimated.  I guess this was on a smaller scale - a bit like swapping books with friends, it was kids sharing their music with each other.  And the quality of the copy was rubbish so there was an incentive to buy the original if you liked it.

I think the whole paradigm around art needs to shift.  The internet provides a highly efficient and accessible distribution method but it potentially can have a negative impact on artists' livelihoods.  This has happened many times over history and I'm confident it can happen again.  It will be the artists themselves who design the revolution.  Business will then realise there's a new way to make a buck and we'll look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

I also wonder about the use of the term "pirate" and the fact that it has been romanticised by Hollywood movies.  After seeing Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, it's hard to remember that a pirate is a terrible criminal.

What do you think?  If you do illegally download material, why? An honest discussion about what motivates behaviour is necessary for any change.


  1. I agree with you on not pirating movies and things - I refuse to buy them. But at the same time we all have smartphones these days so if I have legally downloaded a song and then send it to my daughter's phone is that pirating?

  2. Hmmm. It's hard to know. Probably? It's probably in the fine print somewhere about what devices the song can be sent to. The "cloud" is an interesting development - you can probably just have a family music cloud where everyone can listen to everything. Just like the family record collection. Now gathering dust in a forgotten box somewhere.

  3. I was recently told to pirate copies of a CD by its creator. She'd run out, and wanted her work to get out there to create a bigger market for her forthcoming next project. It was a little mindboggling, as I also try to support friends and acquaintances and other less known musos by making sure they get a return on their work and talent.
    If I were to pirate TV programs it would be to watch them as soon as they come out overseas, to watch at a time of my choosing and without ads. I would buy proper copies of things I wanted to rewatch, when there were cheap at JB. Hypothetically ...

  4. Interesting thoughts Merryn. The internet is a liberator for artists, as well as a killer. It can make the publication and circulation of art so fast and easy and cheap with a potentially huge audience all over the world. Why do double-edged swords exist?