Saturday, November 13, 2010

piracy-good or bad

The New Oxford American Dictionary classifies "piracy" as 'the unauthorized use or reproduction of another's work'. More popularly, piracy is the act of unofficially and illegally distributing content (be it music, movies, software etc) where the originator of the content does not receive compensation from its sale and consumption. Traditionally, the act of piracy involved a vendor, who sold bootlegged content for much cheaper and even before official release. This practice has evolved into peer-to-peer and file-hosting services as we move into the digital age. The traditional method always involved a tangible revenue stream where the consumer doesn't know where the vendor gets his 'maal' from but there is an exchange of money which beyond the vendor, climbs dark and unknown ladders. The modern method  involves services like RapidShare and HotFile. In general uploaders don’t make money or profits from sharing content, although there are exceptions who do. Most download-happy people get their content from services like BitTorrent where the only expense that's concerning is a potentially whopping internet bill (still ways to get around)

Piracy in India is as illegal (falls under the Copyright Act of 1957) as it is rampant. There are multiple reasons for the popularity of piracy. The unavailability or censorship of content in legal streams is a big one. The expense of imported content and the ease of purchasing and availing content through illegal means is another. Even the lack of law enforcement and cracking down on illegal streams is a contributing factor. In a society that isn’t governed by laws, piracy would determine which companies retain their foothold and which companies start failing (as seen in the Sony versus Microsoft case later in this article). However, we have anti-piracy laws because it raises a series of ethical questions.

Piracy affects different industries in different ways. As we break it down by industry, we also discuss reasons for pro and anti piracy for each industry.

The Music Industry
From pirated MP3 CDs available on the street at Rs. 30 a pop to discographies of bands downloaded via torrents or other file-hosting services, you will find hordes of people scouring the net for what they want. And why is this? One could argue that people are cheap, and will take almost anything they can for free, but there's always a counter-argument where this delicate issue is concerned.

An average person's excuse for downloading music off the internet (apart from the fact that it's free) is the availability. The internet has EVERYTHING! From symphonies and old Hindi songs that your grandparents can enjoy to the latest club music and B-sides of bands whose names you will find hard to pronounce, you can find it somewhere or the other.

Another point that works in favour of pro-piracy propagators is the expense. You can download music off the net legally, but the price is usually a deal-breaker. For example, iTunes is the largest digital distributor of music, and they have the most number of licenses worldwide. To buy a song off iTunes costs $ 0.99, which translates roughly into Rs. 45. It would take a ton of money to download an entire discography this way. And then there's the fact that you need to have a credit card to do this. Given the Indian sentiment towards online payments (boo!), the free option is always the better option.  

Something to keep in mind is the way the music industry works. In a lot of countries, the relationship between record companies and artists does not come across as very symbiotic. When a record company is interested in an artist (their R&A have 'discovered' the next star), they put money into the artist for studio time, promotion, concerts and merchandising. This money however, is lent to the artist, and isn't a cost to the studio. The way artists make money is usually a 10% cut from all sales (more from backends if they have really good lawyers). They literally do not get paid for their music unless it sells, and even then, they don't get a major stake. From this 10%, they have to pay the studio back the money the studio put into them. Unless the artist sells an truckload of records, they usually end up taking a bank loan to pay the studio loan back. While this can be seen as a bank-entrepreneur relationship, it's also a game of unfair chances as the risk for artist to have an opportunity is exponentially larger than the risk for the studio 'investing' in an artist. This has resulted in the music industry becoming more about a product than the music. This is the reason people like Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus are mainstream and Rilo Kiley and Bloc Party are virtually unheard of.

This affects the ethics of piracy in a few ways. While one angle is that since none of the money that you would pay for music legitimately is going to the artist anyway, why spend? The counter argument to that is that because of piracy, there aren't enough sales to allow an artist to make enough money from royalties to repay their huge loan.

Sure these arguments hold quite a lot of weight, but at the end of the day, the law is the law. And the law says piracy is wrong. But people will keep downloading stuff of the Internet until someone is made a scapegoat. If you've been following the news lately, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) has launched an assault on a number of peer-to-peer users, and is in the process of making an example out of a few of them. 

A lot of people will remember the time Napster got sued by big artists like Metallica and Dr. Dre for encouraging piracy. Eventually Napster had to shut down.  But on the other hand, bands like The Offspring completely supported Napster. A lot of people will agree with Holland’s ideology that music is meant to be shared, so why shouldn’t everyone be able to access it.

The Film and Television Industry
The major reason piracy exists for movies and television shows, particularly ones from foreign shores, is the delay in launches in India, as well as censorship. Tickets for movies are on the rise (in the average Mumbai multiplex, a ticket to a movie on a Friday night is on average Rs. 300) and even then, it isn't the best movie watching experience. DVDs mostly tend to be bought by cinephiles, and even they will choose to download an average movie over spending money on a DVD for it. Having said that, the folks over at Moser Baer have been innovative in their efforts to control piracy. They upped their distribution so DVDs are available even in grocery stores, as well as picked up more titles and made cheaper discs. The starting price for a Moser Baer disc is Rs. 34.


What drives people to pirate movies? In the traditional method, i.e. in the street vendors model, the main reason someone would buy a bootlegged disc is the expense, or rather, the lack of it. A typical disc from a street vendor will cost between Rs. 50-Rs. 100 max. They often even have four for one deals. The catch however is the print. Most of the prints end up being cam footage of the movie itself, filmed in a theater. Despite this blatant flaw, when it comes to a movie, you watch for the sake of watching something, as opposed to a movie you really want to see for its production values, the street vendor wins. 
Now that we've moved into the digital age, it's even possible to get good prints online of films and TV shows which cost absolutely nothing. Given the way the global television industry works with its syndication and international distribution patterns, shows end up coming to India sometimes three or four years after they've originally aired abroad, and again, face censorship once they get here. Downloading shows from BitTorrent is so much more convenient and helpful in keeping up to date with pop culture. Any hardcore TV-show addict will know that everything is available online. In fact, as soon as any popular TV show airs in its country of origin, you can get it online. The same goes for movies, although the prints aren’t always the best. Nevertheless, all of this manages to make its way on the Internet for people to download.

The argument against piracy for movies and television is again, an ethical one. If there's no such thing as a free lunch, there certainly is no such thing as a free dinner and a movie either. The way the film industry is set up allows for even distribution of revenue between people who make the film and people who sell it (aside from, of course, the production assistants). The Writers' Strike of 2008 is one example of how people in the film industry aren't afraid to fight for a fair and equal sharing of revenue. For this to work, however, there has to be revenue. More than that, the film industry still is about the art of film making. You still have the popcorn flicks like "Due Date", but you also have pieces of solid film making in mainstream cinema like "The Social Network". Piracy could potentially destroy the ability that studios have to make good movies, and the film industry could go the way the music industry has, where it's no longer about the music, but about a product.

The Software and Gaming Industry
The gaming industry has both profited as well as suffered with the increasing rise in piracy. For instance, the Playstation 2 sold a ton of consoles (if fact, they’re still very popular) because games were available at really cheap rates. On the other hand, the Xbox and the Xbox360 suffered because only pirated games were being bought, and the consoles were being cracked to play games directly from the hard drive. The reason it worked for the Playstation 2 and not for the Xbox is, of course, the fact that the former is way cheaper than the latter. 

Piracy in gaming has also crippled PC games, because it’s all available on the streets for a fraction of the original cost. There are fewer developers concentrating on PC games, as all the big guns are aiming at console games instead. Although these console-based games are eventually mapped for PCs, they end up suffering in quality even though PCs have higher specs and better equipment. 
As for software, there’s nothing much more that can be said about its piracy. It’s the same principle as pirating movies, TV shows or music. Even before P2P sites like Napster arrived, games and programme discs were being copied and distributed from one person to another. 

One thing to think about in general on the anti piracy side in the traditional method, is what the vendors do with the money they make. They're already in the business of making illegal money. It's pretty safe to assume that that money is funding other illegal and just bad-for-mankind practices like gang violence, terrorism and drugs.

Many people who are strongly anti piracy, have still consumed content illegally at some point in their lives. The ease of which piracy is possible makes even strict anti-piracy people hypocrites.

In conclusion, the debate of piracy ends up being a logic versus emotion battle. All the arguments pro piracy are arguments made based on thinking about real-world scenarios like cost-saving, easier access, industry structure and mainly self gain. All the arguments anti piracy end up being made based on the ethics of the situation and thinking about another man's loss. It definitely is not an easy battle because it requires a situation of logic meeting ethic which is idealism. And we all know idealism isn’t usually what's practical.