Why piracy is the vanguard of capitalism

I’d like to tell you a story about a friend of mine who committed a petty crime, and thus unwittingly found himself at the cutting edge of helping the entertainments industry renew itself in the digital world. Really. Let me explain. He was sitting with his 5-year-old son in a greasy-spoon cafe in Bethnal Green, east London, when a guy comes in offering pirate DVDs. My friend is not interested in Jackie Chan (he’d rather watch the Romanian New Wave / take an overdose of painkillers, take your pick – some would say the effect is similar). But the canny salesman immediately brandishes Toy Story 3, and the boy’s eyes light up. As a single parent on a low income, my friend has not been able to take his kid to see the latest Disney blockbuster. So, while he does not believe the guy’s claims that it’s “100% quality”, he takes a punt on it for the measly sum of £2. Screening it at home later, it’s clear it isn’t DVD quality, and it has Chinese sub-titles, but it’s perfectly watchable, and he and his son enjoy the toys’ antics very much.

At this point cue Arnold Schwarzenegger on a motorbike in that risible anti-piracy commercial that sometimes interrupts your DVD viewing pleasure, and ironically also stars Jackie Chan. “Copying is theft” is their menacing message. Wrong, Arnold. If I steal your bicycle, that’s theft. If I copy your bicycle, you stlll have a bicycle, though in your case it would be a gas-guzzling, planet-fucking humvee, which I wouldn’t touch in the first place. Does film copying threaten jobs? This is the classic “lump of labour” theory, that if jobs are lost in one industry there are no new jobs in any others. Computerisation has ended type-setting, but graphic designers have taken their place. I can also think of a few economies the film industry could make without it affecting anybody. In 2001, Schwarzenegger himself was paid an astonishing $30 million to be a monosyllabic killing machine in Terminator 3. Regarding income from copyright, recent research from the University of Uppsala showed that only 2% of spending on media and culture in Sweden went to artists for copyright. Income for creators from copyright is very low, and they would be much better off selling directly to consumers online. Meanwhile artists make the vast majority of their income from non-copyright sources, such as gigs.

My friend’s pirate DVD almost certainly came from a website called TV Shack, which by coincidence was the previous week raided in New York by the FBI. All the press reports quoted the availability of Toy Story 3 on its website as a motivation for the raid. The technologically-backward Feds may sadly have thought that they had cut off TV Shack’s illegal trade. In fact opened a few hours later from a Chinese address, and it took several more months of no doubt expensive cat and mouse to take it down again. Why are such public resources being thrown at trying to preserve an antiquated business model?

Anyway, two days after laughing at Woody and and his anthropomorphised mates, my friend is in a toy shop, wanting to buy something for his boy. He lights on a Toy Story lego set, which he would never have bought without them having seen the film. And later that week, the boy needs a new schoolbag, and he rejects the usual superheroes, and happily goes for more Toy Story merchandising. So it’s not that my friend does not consume products which profit mega-corporations. It’s just that £20 for a one-off cinema trip could be much better spent. When 5-year-olds like a film, they want to see it ove and over (and not only they, says the author, who makes sure he sees Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” in a state of awed reverie every year). We have a video projector at home, a large white wall, and a decent throw for the beamer. How much better it is for us to watch a film like that in multicultural London, where we can turn on the DVD sub-titles for viewers whose first language is not English, and can pause and fetch a beer at will. Is it possible that cinema is, in the words of my wise old lecturer Dr Roy Armes, “the last of the nineteenth century theatrical entertainments”? At the beginning of the 20th century, should we have protected blacksmiths by banning cars?

Now, Disney executives, let’s “do the math”. Simply put, because of my friend’s terrible crime, he has put more money into your already loaded pockets. And let’s see who else he might have helped. The guy who sold it to them might have been a pawn in a global mafia involved in drug-dealing and the trafficking of women into prostitution. I say might, because this is a claim made on the Home Office website, not a very reliable source, and they give absolutely no evidence to support it. But it is true that activities which should be legal, such as the buying of recreational drugs, are through being made illegal, thrown into a criminal underworld which presumably does some really bad stuff. But let’s imagine for a moment that our seller is a cottage industry. He’s doing a serious day’s work. The costs up front: blank media 20p, a laser-copy cover 20p, and a subscription to the website source, which is the only way of getting a whole copy. Then he has to hawk it round East London under constant fear of arrest. Alternatively he could rely on state benefits. Is that what you prefer?

I am also pleased that TV Shack got some money, because serving popular content costs a sum probably not covered by the advertising revenue, and they were providing a very valuable service to people who are too poor for the cinema or the cable package. And, finally, everyone is a winner in this situation, including Disney themselves.

So why this war on piracy? And a war it is, with profoundly undemocratic and unworkable legislation being passed with minimal scrutiny in a number of countries at the behest of corporations such as Disney. The most notorious are the “three strikes and you’re out” laws in France and the UK, where households could lose their internet connections because of allegations of illegal downloading the copyright-holders do not have to prove in a court of law. What motivates this attack? Corporate greed? Surely not. It makes no economic sense. There’s a strong body of evidence to say that so-called “illegal downloaders” spend more on cultural products than people who never do this, and that they do this because they try out the products themselves beforehand, and then rush out to buy them for a friend’s birthday. Is it instead a question of control, of power? For these old mega-corporations, the horizontal democracy of the internet can seem a very scarey place. Digital information just wants to be free, a fact that must strike terror to companies grown complacent with the idea that people must consume what they produce in whatever way the producers choose.

And finally, back to my friend. He is a bit embarassed and ashamed about his dodgy deals in downtown Hackney. He’s really not sure he should be doing this. You see, as a man of the left, he is aware of old Uncle Walt’s ugly history of McCarthyite witch-hunting and union-bashing. He has also read about the way that Donald Duck was used to inculcate selfish individualism in Latin American children. In the end, though, he is happy to say that on balance he can justify tipping money into Disney’s pockets via its merchandising. You see, he really admires the films, and his son adores them. Hence the lego-set and the schoolbag. But pay to see an unknown film in the cinema he doesn’t even know that his son will enjoy? Come off it, Mickey!