Entertaining Crime

While swashbuckling buccaneers are no longer a threat on the open seas, a new kind of piracy has become a chilling concern, sure to strike fear in the hearts of men. These days it seems as though there’s a ‘media pirate’ under every bed, conspiring to undermine the very foundation of modern capitalist civilisation.

This hysteria of our age is rooted in the quest to protect ‘intellectual property’; the new bounty of our increasingly information and media driven world. Ideas, concepts and works - in the form of music, films, computer games and software - all fall under the category. The real value of a music CD is not the disc or the jewel case, but the music itself - something which can be digitized, copied, replicated and downloaded.

In order to protect its commercial interests the entertainment industry has launched an unprecedented propaganda and legal campaign against its own clients – we the consumers. They would have you believe that copying a film, or downloading an MP3, is nearly tantamount to murder or rape. And the hysteria is growing. But how valid is their argument that piracy is detrimental to their business? Could they simply be unable to adapt to an era in which the rules have changed?

Entertainment piracy, in some form or the other, has been around for decades – remember when people made audio tape copies from vinyl records (ask your parents)? But the proverbial ‘shit’ only really hit the fan when the Internet became ubiquitous in our lives; today bolstered by the growth in broadband access. Now, people swap music and even entire full length movies online on an almost unimaginable scale. From the defunct Napster to Kazaa, file-sharing services are seen as the biggest threat to the entertainment industry since, well, ever. The reaction has been typical of multinational corporations: threats, lawsuits and a witch-hunt which embarrassingly saw confused grandmothers and twelve-year-olds being threatened with jail-time.

We’re now faced with tedious warnings at the start of most blockbuster movies that explain that making a recording of said flick is illegal. There have even been reports of film reviewers being searched for cameras and ordinary camera phones at previews. To add to the madness, an Interpol document concluded in 2003 that the proceeds of software and music piracy were helping to finance terrorist groups such as “al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Chechen separatists, ethnic Albanian extremists in Kosovo and paramilitaries in Northern Ireland”. But what all this fails to take into account is that not all piracy is on the same ethical footing.

A statement from the Crime Sucks website (www.crimesucks.co.za) says that, “There are lots of different forms of piracy, from the wholesale import of thousands of pirated discs by criminal syndicates… to Internet downloading of copyrighted films, games or music… But at the end of the day – it’s all theft”.

In their rush to scare and bully the masses, entertainment companies and the media have blurred the lines between ‘professional piracy’ and ‘consumer piracy’ and, as a result, increasingly imposed on consumers’ freedoms and treated us, their clients, like criminals. A good example is the trend among record companies to encode their CDs so that they do not play on computers. Surely, when we pay good money for a CD, it should work on all CD players? Organisations such as the US’ Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org) are working at protecting consumers’ rights in cases like these. They support the concept of ‘fair use’, which is based on the idea that you should be able to pretty much do what you like with music or films you’ve bought, as long as you don’t make a profit.

While entertainment companies argue that music piracy has resulted in a loss of profits, often adding that the musicians and artists themselves are the ones to lose out, the reality may be quite different. While buying fake CDs or DVDs is legitimately dodgy, many believe that free online file sharing actually helps music sales and musicians.

They point to the fact that radio has, for decades, offered free music as a promotional incentive for consumers to buy music. The argument is that if you don’t hear the music that is out there, you won’t buy it. Online file-sharing may well be a revolutionary way to get unknown musicians out into the world and promote new releases from established artists. And while it’s true that there has been a decline in music sales over the last few years, many would argue that overpriced CDs (combined with a poor global economy) are to blame. In fact, consumer and government commissions in countries such as the UK have found that CDs are grossly overpriced by record companies and retailers.

The Crime Sucks website adds that “as much as 50% of all DVDs in South Africa are pirated copies”. While not defending the selling of illegal goods, this could certainly have something to do with the fact that DVDs are also outrageously priced in our fair nation. It’s sheer profiteering when an original DVD sells for R199 in South Africa (such as Kill Bill Vol 2), while the same DVD (even with an exchange rate of R6 to $1) can be bought in the USA for R84.00. And, while more and more films are available online - in fact, as of 2004, a report revealed that one in four Internet users have downloaded a movie before it hit the big screen - Hollywood continues to see a massive annual increase in profits around the world.

Record companies are also facing the reality that they risk being sidelined by their own artists. Because of the low cost and ease of transferring (and yes, selling) music online, some artists are bypassing these companies and targeting their public directly. It’s not yet a reality, but all musicians (not just massive sellers like Britney Spears) stand to, in the future, make money directly from their fans, instead of enriching the pockets of entertainment companies. (Did you know that musicians can receive as little as 48 cents per R 100 CD that is sold?).

As we weather the ongoing storm around piracy it’s important to face facts. The entertainment industry, due to sheer profiteering, is partly to blame for driving consumers straight into the arms of pirates. While entitled to go after professional counterfeiters, entertainment multinationals need to respect their clients, and realise that they will never be able to - nor should they want to - control sharing of music and entertainment between fans.

Rather than punishing the people that have made them rich, the entertainment industry must find new ways to innovate, offer better products, and at better prices. That is the only way to ultimately make a dent in the scourge of entertainment piracy.

‘Crime Sucks’, but so does being taken for a ride by corporate pirates.

By Luiz DeBarros © 2005