• 03.19.10

Renaming Digital Piracy: A Smokescreen to Hide Movie’s True Worth?

“Oh ar, oi’m a movie pirate, I am. Oh arrrr!”…does that sound sexy to you? Does it bring visions of a be-hatted Johnny Depp to mind? According to some content providers it might, and they want to rename online piracy. Losers.

Pirates of the Caribbean

“Oh ar, oi’m a movie pirate, I am. Oh arrrr!”…does that sound sexy to you? Does it bring visions of a be-hatted Johnny Depp to mind? According to some content providers it might, and they want to rename online piracy. Losers.


This idea is being discussed over at ArsTechnica, and it stems from some words by Agnete Haaland, the president of the International Actors Federation. She was speaking in a press conference after the International Chamber of Commerce revealed the results of a new study that suggested over 1.2 million jobs would be lost in Europe alone thanks to download piracy by 2015, along with over €240 billion lost income. Haaland’s comments pretty much echo the sentiment I describe above: “To me, piracy is something adventurous, it makes you think about Johnny Depp. We all want to be a bit like Johnny Depp.” And this is the core of her argument that “we [the industries concerned] should change the term piracy.”

But really, Agnete, you’re just guilty of rampant PR spin, aren’t you? It’s not as simple as that. That phrase has been used as a weapon to demonize the notion of downloading by the authorities for years–digital pirates are like thieves and ruffians. It’s even expressly referred to as such in those irritating “educational” inserts we have to watch at the start of DVDs, and in some movie presentations in theaters now too. They’re so ridiculously over the top they’ve almost become a self-parody, as this clip from the fabulous I.T. Crowd shows.

Note this isn’t the real clip, as we can’t embed it: Its IP owners are happy to get the free PR from YouTube, but not confident enough to let “pirates” promote the show outside of the confines of YouTube’s own page (To see the non-Lego version, click here.) This is another interpretation of ownership of the IP in online content…and it taps into the whole Viacom versus YouTube fiasco that’s slowly exploding right now.

But it’s in a slightly different explanation of piracy, outlined by Rupert Murdoch’s son James, that the weakness at the heart of all of these arguments is exposed: Murdoch was speaking in Abu Dhabi last week and said “There is no difference with going into a store and stealing Pringles or a handbag and taking this stuff.” But he then tried to tap into the philosophy and hard economics of the matter: “It’s a basic condition for investment and economic growth and there should be the same level of property rights whether it’s a house or a movie,” he began. This is essentially true, but it assumes that economic model is rigid and unchanging, rather than dynamic and reacting to society’s needs.

Murdoch went on: “The idea that there’s a new consumer class and you have to be consumer-friendly when they’re stealing stuff. No. There should be the same level of sanctity as there is around property.” Hmmm. This is weird, and it exposes the backwards logic at the heart of all these anti-piracy stances. Because the content generation industry is slave to the needs of the people it supplies to, not the other way around. And rampant piracy is an indication by literally millions of people around the world that the IP owners have to change their model, not aggressively defend it. Pirating something is a direct message that the item in question–particularly something as ephemeral as the IP of a movie–is just too expensive (or possibly not available in your region, for obscure business reasons). Economic worth is a completely imaginary construct, after all, and it’s a fluid, fickle thing, completely unlike the rigid, inflexible suggestions James and Agnete put forward.


A fabulous example of this is in the recent economic meltdown. The magic of Wall Street is almost completely smoke and mirrors: Look at something like a Collateralized Debt Obligation. It’s a trick whereby buying a bunch of debts from someone actually generates income–which just doesn’t fit well in a common sense world. But the bankers and dealers perceive value in these things, and the system worked. Until it suddenly didn’t, and all these artificial financial entities suddenly revealed their true worth–nothing. The result is the model was in conflict with reality, and all sorts of mayhem befell.

Rename piracy? Ohohoho no, me hearties. We need to re-rig the thinking of folk like Murdoch and Haaland to suit the winds of change.

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