Watching a DVD in the 2000s, you couldn’t avoid seeing the now iconic “you wouldn’t steal a car” anti-piracy ad. Though it’s been parodied ever since, this public service announcement successfully drilled into the heads of a generation that piracy is theft.
However, the truth about piracy is actually far more complicated.
Downloading films like this is indeed a violation of intellectual property rights, and studies into the subject have confirmed that this does hurt the film industry. According to the US Chamber of Commerce’s Global Innovation Policy Centre, piracy costs the American film industry around $21.2 Billion a year, and one source in China suggests up to 64% of its box office is lost to piracy. Understandably, we often hear the argument that supporting piracy would lead to the destruction of the industry as we know it.
This simple dismissal of piracy as theft ignores the circumstances in which some audiences may be blocked from watching films. China has such a particularly high rate of piracy because the country’s excessive protectionism and censorship serves to drive demand for piracy. There is a huge black market for foreign films not allowed in the country, especially because these pirated copies have far more accurate subtitles compared to officially approved content.
The rest of the world is not so different. Even without censorship there are strict limits imposed on accessibility, either due to financial barriers or merely availability. Perhaps the most obvious cause of privacy is the expense of the media itself. Whilst in many countries audiences are not restricted by censorship and may physically be able to get their hands on a DVD, the price of it in an impoverished country could cost a day’s work. And companies within the film industry don’t help either, as prices of films are not hugely lowered accordingly. It is unsurprising then, that piracy is far more common in poorer countries.
But even in more developed countries, intellectual property laws restrict access to films.1978’s Dawn of the Dead remains one of the most iconic horror films of all time, but in its country of release (the US), the film is not on any streaming service and physical copies are out of printmaking. This means the only option available is a collector’s edition and that doesn’t come cheap. Corporations restricting availability is not uncommon for the industry. Disney fans may be familiar with ‘the Disney vault’, where newly released films are put on sale for a short amount of time, only to be put in a “vault” where access is restricted until Disney decides to re-release it at a higher price.
It’s an unfortunate fact that film access and distribution is dominated by large corporations who have more interest in wringing out as much profit as they can from the consumer, instead of creating a distribution system that gives people proper access to art and entertainment.
For anyone that doesn’t want to be limited by these constraints, piracy can be the solution. Piracy, at its heart, is therefore less for fans of the latest Marvel movie and more integral for those who want to protect and celebrate the most obscure, yet important films ever made. For those people, it has become a vital tool.
Piracy as film preservation
Cinephiles gladly share links to obscure classic films that, for whatever reason, have become unavailable through legal means. Multiple pirate services have been created to meet this demand – the biggest of which is a site called Karagarga which houses the most exhaustive library of classic, foreign and arthouse films in the world. Every year film prints are damaged or lost, VHS tapes aren’t upgraded, DVDs fall out of print without reissue, and back catalogues never make the transition to digital. Resources like Karagarga provide a much-needed service for film history. The closest legitimate counterparts are distribution companies like Criterion that specialise in restoring and preserving classics and important films from around the world. But even then, its physical media has a high price point, and the Criterion streaming service is exclusive only to the US. For everyone else, a mass digital archive is the last defence against pieces of art that would otherwise be lost to time.
Unlike popular sites like pirate bay, Karagarga functions like an exclusive club in which its users are given an invitation before they can post or download files, but some of these forums are more accessible. In a VICE article on the subject, a prominent contributor of one of these sites describes his pirate forum as motivated by his love for classic film and a desire to share that with others. Others share his love; among those who visit the forums are film critics, academics and even directors.
In fact, directors themselves have been very vocal about the importance of piracy in film distribution and preservation. German filmmaker Werner Herzog famously said, “Piracy has been the most successful form of distribution worldwide. If you don’t get [films] through Netflix or state-sponsored television in your country, then you go and access it as a pirate. I don’t like it because I would like to earn some money with my films. But if someone like you steals my films through the internet or whatever, fine, you have my blessing.” We have always seen the reason to preserve great works of art –why else are galleries like the Tate free? It is not a great leap to see why filmmakers want the same for their own art form, and film piracy has an important part to play in this process. To get rid of piracy would leave the conservation of the films that are part of our cultural heritage to profit driven companies like Disney. As Martin Scorsese once said on the subject of film preservation, “we have to really take good care of it…from the acknowledged masterpieces of cinema to industrial films, anthropological films and home movies- anything that can tell us who we are.”