21 February 2012

Why I Pirate Movies: A Self-Justification.

Whole lotta chatter on the Interwebs the last couple of days about piracy, inspired largely by The Oatmeal's typically amusing comic about trying to legally acquire Game of Thrones. My friend Noel Murray was one of many who noted that while Inman's portrait of today's media consumer as a lost soul wandering through Dickens' circumlocution office is accurate, Game of Thrones comes out on DVD and Blu-ray on 6 March, so in essence he's whining about having to wait a whole two more weeks. Which is admittedly a tad ridiculous.

In that particular scenario, however, Inman was looking to buy. Things get a little trickier if you want to rent something, especially when that something is a motion picture made before roughly 2003. So let me explain why I will be illegally downloading Criterion's Anatomy of a Murder later tonight.

I started out as a Netflix subscriber. (By "started out," I'm talking about only a couple of years ago, actually, after I moved to California. From 1992-2009, when I lived in New York, I watched almost nothing on video, as there was always something to see at one of the city's numerous museums and rep houses.) Loved me the Netflix for about eight months. Then my dad gave me a Blu-ray player for my birthday, which instantly killed my ability to watch conventional DVDs, as they now look like VHS to my eyes. Netflix has a healthy Blu library, and I dove right in...but as I started paying attention to new releases in the format, it gradually became clear that they weren't buying catalog titles on Blu anymore. As in, none at all. And while I hope to one day be satisfied with the quality of HD streaming via my basic Time Warner connection, that day has not yet arrived.

So when Netflix had its gargantuan pooch-screw late last summer, splitting its DVD and streaming services, I jumped ship to Blockbuster-By-Mail, after checking their site and discovering that they were still acquiring pretty much every title released on Blu, including the more obscure Criterion releases that Netflix had never bothered with. And that honeymoon lasted, oh, about four months, I think. Then I found that when I added a given week's new releases to my queue, they would all show up as "On Order." Which would almost always metamorphose into "Unavailable" a few weeks later. And now they're not even pretending anymore—when you search for a title that just came out, you'll either get the old DVD copy or no result at all. They've evidently decided that their business model doesn't justify purchasing those discs for the tiny handful of folks like me who want them.

And as far as I can determine, there is no other rent-by-mail service that's buying catalog Blu-ray titles on a consistent basis. [UPDATED: See below.] Unless you live near a much hipper brick-and-mortar video store than any of those within reasonable driving distance of my house, you simply cannot rent these films.

So I download them. And I don't feel the slightest bit guilty about it, frankly. When I was given the opportunity to pay a reasonable fee to rent, I happily did so, and was more than willing to kick in the Blu-ray surcharge that both sites imposed. Now that that option has been withdrawn, my non-piracy choices are (a) spend $30 or so to purchase a movie I don't (in most cases) wish to permanently own, or (b) not watch the movie. Neither of those is acceptable to me. Furthermore, I can't see how my downloading these films is depriving anybody of income, since I delete those I don't love immediately after viewing them and buy physical copies of those I do love—or, if I can't afford them right this second, add them to a wishlist. Either way, I watch the file and then nuke it. The only films that I've downloaded illegally and then burned to disc are The Arbor and Godard's A Married Woman, and that's only because there's no Region 1 Blu-ray of those two titles. (I don't have a region-free player.)

I don't pirate movies out of some sorry sense of entitlement. I pirate movies because at the present moment I know of no other means of watching a high-definition copy of an older film without buying it outright. And that's ridiculous.

(By the way, I already own a DVD of Anatomy of a Murder, the next film I plan to "steal." Bought it years ago. Which is true of a large percentage of the films I download. And I'll probably wind up buying the Blu after I revisit it this week, assuming I still dig it. But I don't want to spend $39.95 and have a Leaving Las Vegas experience, where I suddenly realize an old favorite is actually a well-acted piece of shit.)

UPDATE: Scott Nye (@railoftomorrow) pointed me to ClassicFlix, which does appear to have an excellent selection of catalog titles on Blu, including some very recent releases. No sign of the Criterion World on a Wire, though.

UPDATED AGAIN: Now that I look more closely, ClassicFlix doesn't stock anything made after 1969, which explains the missing Fassbinder. But they're also missing a bunch of foreign pre-'70 titles, including Smiles From a Summer Night, Last Year at Marienbad, Le Beau Serge, etc.

AND ANOTHER UPDATE: Got into a debate on Twitter with someone at Masters Of Cinema (basically the U.K. Criterion). Understandably, they take a hard anti-piracy line: It's stealing, period. So I asked them what they suggest I do, and their answer—I swear I am not making this up—was that I should purchase every single film I want to watch, and then resell the ones I don't want to keep (the vast majority) on eBay or Amazon or whatever. "You'll hardly end up spending anything," they hilariously claimed. That's the mindset we're dealing with here.

77 comments:

Scott said...

If you can't stomach DVDs anymore, does that mean that you're only downloading full 50GB Blu-rays, or is a 5GB 720p rip good enough?

md'a said...

I can live with the 720p rips. Still far superior to DVD. (I did an A-B comparison right off the bat, using Blade Runner.)

Dan Benenson said...

I appreciate that you're just owning up to it, but how is there not still a sense of entitlement implicit in what you're saying? "I either have to buy the movie or not watch it, which is unacceptable." That's you saying you feel entitled to watch the movie. Same with the non-US dvd issue. The non-entitled choices are you either pony up for the region free player or you settle for not watching those movies. I pirate too, so I'm not judging, and practically speaking what you do (delete what you download, buy what you will watch again) is reasonable, but let's call a spade a spade.

md'a said...

You are correct. I guess I do in fact feel entitled to watch a movie without purchasing a permanent copy for three times what even a first-run theater would charge for a ticket. Doesn't seem outrageous to me.

Same deal with foreign Blu-ray titles. The "non-entitled" options are either prohibitively expensive (buy a second big hunk of hardware on which to watch just a few films) or, effectively, anti-art ("Oh, you're not rich? Then watch 2 Broke Girls, that's free").

Anonymous said...

JFYI Anatomy of a Murder Criterion blu is available on Netflix.

md'a said...

Too late now. And that appears to be the only catalog Blu they've purchased in the past few weeks.

Dan Benenson said...

I know what I'm talking about is mostly semantics, just saying that's still entitlement. I also wish stuff was cheaper and more accessible, and that's usually why I download something too. Technically that doesn't justify what we do though.

Steve C. said...

I, too, have occasionally indulged in a spot of piracy, and for much the same reason - if I wanted to watch, say, DEADLY PREY, my options are either:

1) Check Amazon & eBay, hoping that someone has posted an affordable copy of the long-out-of-print VHS (they never have), or

2) Hit the torrents. Or YouTube, which has in the past year become an unexpected trove of dumb VHS wonders.

(As for why I'd want to see DEADLY PREY... why wouldn't I? That film is like seeing Jesus jet-skiing over a crocodile pit.)

Incidentally... does anyone know of a Classicflix-style service that works with genre films? Code Red, Scorpion, Mondo Macabro and Synapse (for instance) have all released some fascinating-looking stuff in the last year, and I can't afford to blind-buy all of 'em.

Dan Benenson said...

To put it another (admittedly cliched but still partly valid) way, there are lots of things in the world I'd like to possess or experience but that doesn't justify stealing them. Downloading is an easier, and realistically speaking less destructive leap to make - I DON'T think it's 1:1 with stealing physical media or taking money out of someone's pocket - but the principle is the same. Maybe the argument needs to be more about how the business and the legal standards need to change rather than whether or not pirating is okay.

Again, I'm kind of playing devil's advocate. I pirate plenty of stuff. I just don't think there's really any way to rationalize it.

Jeff said...

You should absolutely order the MoC Blu-ray of A Married Woman from the U.K. The Blu is 100% region free and the entire disc plays without a hitch on any U.S. Blu-ray player.

You're not really paying MSRP for Criterion titles are you? Anatomy of a Murder was $16.99 when it first showed up on Amazon. It was a misprice, but their regular price is $28. Criterion and Barnes and Noble both offer half price Criterions at regular intervals throughout the year.

I understand your desire to watch these films, but I agree with Dan Benenson regarding the sense of entitlement. You can't just decide that any item that you can't afford and that isn't available for rent is free game for the taking.

md'a said...

Technically that doesn't justify what we do though.

That's only true if you think downloading media is morally wrong per se. I do not. Something is morally wrong if it's harmful, and I can't see how what I do harms anyone at all, even an iota. The fact that various corporate entities would prefer that I not do it because they incorrectly imagine it's depriving them of income is irrelevant to me.

md'a said...

You should absolutely order the MoC Blu-ray of A Married Woman from the U.K. The Blu is 100% region free and the entire disc plays without a hitch on any U.S. Blu-ray player.

Ah, didn't realize. I'll definitely do that.

You're not really paying MSRP for Criterion titles are you?

No, but that's not really the point. Even half-price is way too expensive for a one-time viewing.

You can't just decide that any item that you can't afford and that isn't available for rent is free game for the taking.

Why not? Again, tell me who it harms.

Victor Morton said...

The moral principle that theft is wrong (even stipulating the libertine "harm others" / tort standard) is not based on one-to-one scarcity (or distaste for the property's owner or his conduct relative to that property).

md'a said...

Then what is it based on?

md'a said...

Although now that I look again, I actually agree with that statement. "One-on-one scarcity" isn't the issue here; my justification isn't simply that nobody has been physically deprived of an object. People downloading films in lieu of buying them are clearly doing harm, by depriving others of the fruits of their labors. I, however, am not. I am not even keeping the items in question (save for the two exceptions noted, one of which I will now replace with a purchased copy; hopefully I'll be able to do the same with the other). So at worst I am depriving someone of potential rental income, except of course that the whole reason I'm downloading the films in the first place is that I can't in fact rent them anywhere.

Surely there is nothing morally wrong with you lending me a copy of a movie you've purchased (even though that may, in fact, deprive somebody of income). File-sharing the way I do it is much the same, except that the lending is being done by multiple strangers rather than a single individual.

David said...

FYI -- Netflix has not given up on purchasing catalog titles on blu. Sometimes they're available quickly (i.e., when the blu is released or very soon after). Often, it takes a while (a few weeks). I don't know why. In the past few weeks I've rented all of the following from Netflix on blu-ray:

North by Northwest
The Thing (Carpenter)
Heavenly Creatures
West Side Story
Raising Arizona
Blue, White, Red (Kieslowski, Criterion releases)
12 Angry Men

I'm sure that some of them (and others I've rented) didn't show up as blu-ray options when they were first released on the format.

For the record, I'm with you on the question of downloading, and don't quibble with your reasoning.

Victor Morton said...

"at worst I am depriving someone of potential rental income"

That's your answer. And the moral matter isn't changed by the rights holder not providing access in the manner some wish. He is not obliged to do so, at least under any system that conceives of intellectual property rights as belonging to a private party (rather than as a public utility, say).

And while obviously the loss from any one person's download is minimal (or one person lending a disc to the necessarily limited circle of people he considers trustworthy friends in re the legitimately-purchased hard copy), the current system of marginal-cost-free, mass downloading among strangers — the system in which one is participating — erodes the value of intellectual property rights. As the dose defines the poison, the scale defines the harm.

md'a said...

That's your answer.

I would like to rent the Criterion Blu-ray of World on a Wire. To whom can I send my money? If you have no answer to that question, then who am I depriving of potential income?

The argument that my participation in file-sharing, while not harmful in itself (and I maintain that there is zero harm here, not some negligible amount), enables others to do harm is on somewhat firmer ground. But that's closer to chiding me for buying certain products on the grounds that by doing so I indirectly contribute to deprivation in the countries where they're manufactured.

md'a said...

FYI -- Netflix has not given up on purchasing catalog titles on blu.

Apparently not, and maybe I'll give them another chance at some point. But for about six months I kept a list of every Blu release I wanted to rent, which grew to like 200 titles, and Netflix acquired literally none of them. Not one. The very first films on the list (which was really high-profile stuff like Alien and Back to the Future) were still DVD only, six months after the Blu release. I don't know whether there was a purchasing freeze or what.

Victor Morton said...

"I would like to rent the Criterion Blu-ray of World on a Wire. To whom can I send my money?"

Right now, nobody. The unavailability of a particular good (and it's not even that the film is unavailable absolutely; it's just not available on the terms you want) denies you nothing to which you are entitled, legally or morally. There are all sorts of goods I would *like* available to me; their unavailability does not create a license to violate the property rights of others.

"If you have no answer to that question, then who am I depriving of potential income?"

The holder of the MAN ON A WIRE rental rights. You are both depriving him of possible future income and participating in a system that erodes the value of his asset. And the value of his asset was something he paid the Fassbender estate for (I presume; at one level of separation or another), on the assumption that it would have such value.

And I think Noel's point does more damage than you acknowledge. After all, the good you seek is not MAN ON A WIRE rental, but MAN ON A WIRE rental *now* so it can't be absurd to pirate something to be released in 2 months.

"I maintain that there is zero harm here, not some negligible amount"

And you are incorrect to do so. If a system or abstract entity does harm, then those who participate in it share the responsibility to *some >0 amount.* Otherwise ... well, nobody's responsible because anything times 0 is 0.

"But that's closer to chiding me for buying certain products on the grounds that by doing so I indirectly contribute to deprivation in the countries where they're manufactured."

Why is that controversial or a reductio ad absurdum? Of course one does (stipulating the factual case and intellectual understandings that "fair traders" make).

md'a said...

There are all sorts of goods I would *like* available to me; their unavailability does not create a license to violate the property rights of others.

I don't believe I am violating anybody's property rights—again, any more than borrowing the movie from a friend would do so. As an abstract matter, that's utterly meaningless as far as I'm concerned. Show me material harm or I do not care. Simple as that.

The holder of the [WORLD] ON A WIRE rental rights. You are both depriving him of possible future income and participating in a system that erodes the value of his asset.

I am not depriving him of jackshit bud. If you really want to stretch it you can claim that I'm depriving the owners of some video outlet of the future of potential income. But even that's kind of a crock, because it's clear that the model has shifted to monthly fees for a general service rather than a price being paid for a given rental. If I download World on a Wire tomorrow, and it becomes available to rent on Netflix a year later, and because Netflix is now awesome again I rejoin and pay their monthly fee, which includes the right to rent World on a Wire whenever I feel like it, but I never in fact do so because I watched the downloaded copy and have no special desire to see it again, I have deprived nobody of anything whatsoever. And that is by far the most likely real-world scenario.

As for "a system that erodes the value of his asset," that's a subject of fairly intense debate at the moment. A number of studies have indicated that file-sharing in fact boosts sales, and that's been my personal experience as well, with both movies and (especially) music. In any case it's certainly not cut and dried.

If a system or abstract entity does harm, then those who participate in it share the responsibility to *some >0 amount.

I submit that it's the people who abuse the system who do harm, not the system itself. If you pay your fare every time on a public-transit system that works on the honor system, the fact that some people don't buy a ticket does not mean you're partially responsible for the loss of revenue by riding.

And I think Noel's point does more damage than you acknowledge. After all, the good you seek is not [WORLD] ON A WIRE rental, but [WORLD] ON A WIRE rental *now* so it can't be absurd to pirate something to be released in 2 months.

If I had reason to believe that World on a Wire (not Man) would be made available to me at some point in the future, I would happily wait. But I'm not gonna hold off just in case that happens someday. Fuck that noise.

Why is that controversial or a reductio ad absurdum?

It's not. Just saying it's a very different ballpark than "Thief!"

Michael said...

Thanks for some common sense, Mike. I don't necessarily agree with all your conclusions, but the tenor of the discussion as it's playing out in the blagojesphere is fairly sickmaking.

I would like to smack whoever brought the utterly useless term "entitlement" into this discussion. Considering that we are discussing specific legal and material ramifications of a social practice, as well as the relative value of being able to engage with intellectual / minoritarian productions in a majoritarian capitalist society (and not, say, CAMming GHOST RIDER 2), a "concept" like entitlement is sloppy, meaningless, and uselessly pejorative. It's just shorthand for "crybaby," "white people problems," and all those other conversation stoppers. It's not analytic. So drop it.

Victor Morton said...

"we are discussing specific legal and material ramifications of a social practice"

Actually, Waz ... at least Mike isn't. Otherwise, he couldn't demand like a good Randian that a specific individual be identified as harmed to a degree he deems materially significant.

Victor Morton said...

extend that a few more words

"materially significant by a discrete download."

David said...

"Otherwise, he couldn't demand like a good Randian that a specific individual be identified as harmed to a degree he deems materially significant by a discrete download."

Mike addressed your argument pretty thoroughly already. The extent to which Mike's downloading modus operandi 'harms' anybody is negative. i.e., IP rights holders either benefit (when he subsequently purchases the material after finding he likes it that much), or there is no impact whatsoever (if he doesn't subsequently buy the material because he didn't like it enough).

You might have an argument to cling to if rentals still worked like they did back before most became an all-you-can-consume service ala Netflix (or, to stretch a bit, HBO Go). But it doesn't work that way anymore.

Michael said...

Otherwise, he couldn't demand like a good Randian that a specific individual be identified as harmed to a degree he deems materially significant.

Okay, I guess. I think we see the logic of *this* particular argument. No "one" download does Criterion, Kino Lorber, Strand, whoever in. Death of a 1000 cuts, etc.

But all of this is premised on the wrong questions. As Mike made clear, the real issue is, what will be the next new form of minoritarian content delivery with near-mass access, and when will it arrive?

As for waiting, one could just as easily turn the question around. Even I, who live in the US's 4th largest city (Houston), feel that I have to download a significant number of "small" titles.

Part of this is because they won't open here. (Houston's not much of a movie town.) And for the most part, forget repertory. But part of it, yes, is that I don't feel that I *can* wait. As a pro critic, I see everything I can at festivals and via screeners, but I can't see everything that way. And if I waited for every film I missed to open in Houston, or hit Netflix, I would be damagingly excluded from the current conversations of my profession, which are set by festivals first, New York opening dates second.

In other words, yeah, I downloaded A Separation. Sony wouldn't send it out. I wrote a highly positive review that went out in a timely fashion. It opened here in Houston this past Friday. Was I supposed to wait? Puh-leeze. Who's the loser here?

md'a said...

Because I happened to repeatedly reference World on a Wire in this post + comments (which was just because it was released today), a "friend" I've never met or spoken to in my life, who I know only from the Internet, e-mailed me to say that he bought the Criterion Blu-ray and would be happy to mail it to me (by post) if I want to borrow it. Which I do. So I will still be watching the film without paying the rights holder or any intermediary, and then returning it and either buying a copy or not depending on whether I think it's awesome. Which is exactly what I always do.

So why exactly is it okay that this person I barely know at all lends it to me, but theft if a group of anonymous people I don't know at all do the same? That tenuous personal connection somehow justifies all?

Victor Morton said...

"I don't believe I am violating anybody's property rights"

And that belief is incorrect. You are. To the extent you have an argument, it is that your violation harms nobody. Or (the same thing really) that *because* it harms nobody, it isn't *really* a violation -- which COMPLETELY misunderstands how the rule of law works. Even in terms of utility, Philosophy-101 distinguishes Rule Utilitarianism (Mill or Rawls say) and Act Utilitarianism (nobody in the field of social philosophy, really).


"any more than borrowing the movie from a friend would do so."

I've already addressed that point -- the universe of such friends is finite, but the threat of file-sharing is its infiniteness and anonymous nature. The dose defines the poison.


"Show me material harm or I do not care."

I have. You just choose not to acknowledge it and/or hide behind vulgarity. The copyright holder to MAN ON A WIRE or WORLD ON A WIRE or BIRD ON A WIRE or any other copyrighted material is harmed by its theft and by a system that facilitates its theft, even if not by much for any given act of theft. Simple as that.


"it's clear that the model has shifted to monthly fees for a general service rather than a price being paid for a given rental."

That matters not a bit. The general service's value is based on its offerings, and the owner of the rights to those offerings is paid a fee by the service's provider. You might as well argue, if and when all-you-can-eat buffets achieve a certain market share, that a la carte menus thereby become unjust and defend theft from restaurants that price a la carte.


"If I download World on a Wire tomorrow, and it becomes available to rent on Netflix a year later ... but I never in fact do so ... I have deprived nobody of anything whatsoever."

Sure you have. Your act a year ago, summed into many other similar acts, degraded the value of WORLD/MAN/BIRD ON A WIRE to Netflix.


"that's a subject of fairly intense debate at the moment. A number of studies have indicated that file-sharing in fact boosts sales"

Not properly understood it isn't. What surveys HAVE shown (other than self-reports, which are unreliable because self-justifying) is that pirates spend more on legit works that non-pirates. That might be true but it neither morally makes the act not-theft nor proves that the copyright owner is losing no buys he would have had. One may as well argue that it's not shoplifting if your required presence in Wal-Mart impresses you so much that you buy more goods from Sam legitimately.

Victor Morton said...

Part 2



"I submit that it's the people who abuse the system who do harm, not the system itself."

This is what I mean when I say you don't understand how the rule of law works ... indeed, HAS to work if equality before the law, rather than judging by cases, is to be the norm and ideal. What is the possible legal rule that could instantiate that distinction (which isn't false morally, I might agree)?

Further, I'd deny that the file-sharing system is merely incidentally abused. It has no purpose other than to break the law and get around copyright, even though each "getting around" may be infinitessimally harmless and many given users do little harm as individuals to individuals.


"If you pay your fare every time on a public-transit system that works on the honor system, the fact that some people don't buy a ticket does not mean you're partially responsible for the loss of revenue by riding."

(rolls eyes)

Really?

Any transit system run on the basis of an honor system -- one or both of two things is true of it. (1) It doesn't fundamentally rely on those user fees; (2) Its "suggested donation" has the expected free-rider numbers (and expected response rate) already baked in.


"If I had reason to believe that World on a Wire would be made available to me at some point in the future, I would happily wait. But I'm not gonna hold off just in case that happens someday. Fuck that noise."

But that argument either proves too much or nothing at all. If Criterion actually had said "WIRE will be available for rent April 1" (it's already available for purchase, so again, it's not availability that's the issue, it's availability *on your terms*), that announcement doesn't meet a want to see it now, fuck that noise and whatnot. And if you're willing to delay gratification at all, it's hard to see why there is a moral line in any particular period of delay and/or announcements thereof.

Further, as I've already pointed out, this argument makes someone's rights (their copyrights) contingent on someone else's (your) judgment on the wisdom of their use of them. There's a very good moral case for doing that, but I am quite confident you don't REALLY want to go there.


"Just saying it's a very different ballpark than 'Thief!' "

OK. So you're comfortable with saying piracy is wrong (cuz support for, and material contribution to, an unjust system is wrong) on grounds other than theft. Interesting self-justification, I must say.

md'a said...

And that belief is incorrect. You are.

Asserted but not proven. The rights holder does not have the right to prevent someone who purchases an item from lending that item to someone else. And that's what we're dealing with here. Your only argument is that it somehow becomes theft in the aggregate—"the dose defines the poison," as you repeated. But that moves the standard from abstract notions of intellectual property (which, if you truly believe in those, should also define borrowing as theft, since you are in fact depriving someone of potential income by doing so) to what I was talking about, viz. evidence of material harm. And I still maintain that I am doing no harm myself, and feel little responsibility for what others may be doing. That's on them.

The copyright holder to MAN ON A WIRE or WORLD ON A WIRE or BIRD ON A WIRE or any other copyrighted material is harmed by its theft and by a system that facilitates its theft, even if not by much for any given act of theft. Simple as that.

Except this argument is circular, being predicated on your a priori assumption that what I do constitutes theft (precisely the point I deny).

You might as well argue, if and when all-you-can-eat buffets achieve a certain market share, that a la carte menus thereby become unjust and defend theft from restaurants that price a la carte.

A poor analogy, since food cannot be regurgitated and reconsumed. (Or it can, but eww.) Please explain how my downloading Film X devalues it for a service like Netflix that charges a monthly fee, assuming that I pay said fee. (As of today I am a member with two such companies.)

Your act a year ago, summed into many other similar acts, degraded the value of WORLD/MAN/BIRD ON A WIRE to Netflix.

How? They're not charging anyone specifically for that film. If nobody ever ever ever rents it and it gathers dust in their warehouses for all eternity, it makes zero difference to their ledgers. Their subscriptions are their subscriptions. I guess if truly nobody ever rented it you could argue that they made an unnecessary expenditure, but what's the real-world likelihood of that? And who knows, seeing that it's available may still drive business to them, even if nobody takes advantage of that particular option.

What surveys HAVE shown (other than self-reports, which are unreliable because self-justifying) is that pirates spend more on legit works that non-pirates.

And other stuff.

http://tinyurl.com/828cant

md'a said...

Oh there's more.

What is the possible legal rule that could instantiate that distinction (which isn't false morally, I might agree)?

I'm not a lawyer, but "trying each case on its own merits" would seem like the obvious approach.

Further, I'd deny that the file-sharing system is merely incidentally abused. It has no purpose other than to break the law and get around copyright

This is objectively false. I myself have used the same services that provide me with films (file lockers) to send non-copyrighted material to friends.

Any transit system run on the basis of an honor system -- one or both of two things is true of it. (1) It doesn't fundamentally rely on those user fees; (2) Its "suggested donation" has the expected free-rider numbers (and expected response rate) already baked in.

You're confusing mass-transit with museums. It's not a suggested donation—the fare is the fare, and if you get caught without a ticket you get fined up the ass. It's simply more cost-efficient for them to use spot checks as a deterrent than to pay people to check each rider as (s)he boards. But the principle remains the same: the fact that some people abuse the system doesn't mean that everybody who uses the system is culpable to some degree, as you asserted.

If Criterion actually had said "WIRE will be available for rent April 1" (it's already available for purchase, so again, it's not availability that's the issue, it's availability *on your terms*), that announcement doesn't meet a want to see it now, fuck that noise and whatnot. And if you're willing to delay gratification at all, it's hard to see why there is a moral line in any particular period of delay and/or announcements thereof.

Don't follow this at all, sorry. I'm willing to delay gratification when I have reason to believe it's forthcoming. In this case I have no such reason.

To be specific: As I noted, I signed up today with ClassicFlix, the site someone on Twitter pointed me to. They carry the Anatomy of a Murder Blu-ray for rental. I added it to my queue. It says "Very long wait." And that's fine by me. Maybe I won't get it for a year. But I know it's available. Big, big difference between that and "well, just wait indefinitely and hope it becomes available someday. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. Try praying!"

So you're comfortable with saying piracy is wrong (cuz support for, and material contribution to, an unjust system is wrong) on grounds other than theft.

I'm comfortable with saying it's wrong in the same way that e.g. not selling everything I own that I don't absolutely require to live and donating the proceeds to people who are starving is wrong.

Theo said...

Victor reminds me of that line in THE MASK: "Ipkiss, you're 40 minutes late! Now that's the same as stealing."

(Point being, maybe we shouldn't let corporations with an obvious agenda be the ones who define what does and doesn’t constitute “theft”.)

Art is not "property". Art is Art. If it belongs to anyone, it's the proverbial People. There are practical problems with downloading, yes - it hurts video shops; it takes revenue from small labels who need it; it makes it harder to release films to DVD - but much of that has to do with the industrial way movies are made and marketed.

The great blessing of downloading is that it's made clear what consumers have known for decades: that we've always been screwed over when it comes to movies. Hopefully that flawed system - with its emphasis on intellectual property and rights holders having total control over access, as if a work of art were a house or a piece of land - will soon disappear.

I don't have The Answer. But we should be trying to find paradigm shifts and new ways of doing things. (Maybe legal downloads, coupled with an obligation on producers to make ALL films available online as a matter of course?) Moral self-righteousness is completely out of place here.

Ted T. said...

About those non-Region A Blu-rays -- you could get for quite cheap (much cheaper than a set top BD player) a BD drive for your Mac(?) and rip them using MakeMKV, play them back via Plex, etc. (Whatever you use to playback your Internet downloads likely works).

Note, this isn't argument for buying @mastersofcinema Region coded BDs, or a justification of their business model, just a handy tip.

So far as the "Game of Thrones" argument, keep in mind that reality is worse than the comic strip: my wife is a True Blood addict, we buy every season on Blu-Ray. Which means we have to wait for an entire year between the airing of season Xs first episode, and when we are legally allowed to watch it in HD.

I don't download, but its because I live in NYC with all those great movie theaters, not for ethical reasons.

Ted T. said...

(Maybe legal downloads, coupled with an obligation on producers to make ALL films available online as a matter of course?)
That would certainly a tremendous start. Did you know, that every extant episode of Johnny Carson's Tonight Show has been digitized, but it is only available to "scholars" -- sell them for a couple of bucks each on iTunes, before people who were big Carson fans in the day die off or stop caring? Not a chance. For a while they were willing to burn individual episode DVDs for something ridiculous like $100, but even that is gone for good.

The "rights holders", especially in cases where the actual artist is long dead are a plague, made doubly so by the perpetually extended copyright laws and the Supreme Court ruling that public domain works can be magically brought back under copyright, corporations with lobbyists on the payroll willing.

Anonymous said...

Yes indeed, your Twitter was correct. This was a self-righteous blog post about piracy alright.

Michael said...

Drive-by commenter said:

Yes indeed, your Twitter was correct. This was a self-righteous blog post about piracy alright.

Unless you actually are the cyber-hacker collective Anonymous, you're just a troll. Contribute to the discussion, preferably under a name, or go fuck yourself.

Goddamned Internet.

TL said...

So why exactly is it okay that this person I barely know at all lends it to me, but theft if a group of anonymous people I don't know at all do the same?

Funny thing, isn't it? One thing to keep in mind is that intellectual property is only "property" because we have laws that say it is. Those laws dictate the way that your "property" can be used by others (e.g., borrowing/lending/renting under the First Sale Doctrine) and say when your "property" is no longer property (e.g., at the end of the copyright term when the work enters the public domain).

But for reasons that don't really make sense in the digital age, our laws prioritize the copying of the object, not its use. So the act of downloading World on a Wire is against the law because you copy it to your hard drive, but borrowing a Blu-ray isn't illegal because you haven't copied it.

But the end result is the same from your perspective—you've watched a movie without paying for it. Personally, I fail to see how the two acts are ethically different, irrespective of the fact that arbitrary laws say that one is legal and the other isn't.

PARALLEL FILM said...

Hi md'a, thanks for your post. As both filmmaker and publisher of rare DVDs, I have to disagree with you. One of the reasons so many titles don't get the treatment / availability you wish for is the incredibly small profit (if any) you can make with publishing films, on any format --- while the cost to scan / restore / design / package / advertise (and to buy the rights) remains the same. Now it does not help if the remaining potential clients (supporters) download illegally. Where is the business model? You should - for the sake of logic - demand „film socialism", which in effect would mean that the bill is paid by some flat tax instead of the en detail business we are used to.

(If you can't rent the car you want, will you steal it „just for a day”?)

Best,
Christoph Hochhäusler

Calmon said...

The world has changed and this means that morality patterns will have to be adapted, if they haven't already.

The fact that the internet was able to eliminate the physical aspect of intellectual property renders the whole "theft talk" pointless, because if not yet, soon might wil make right.

Anonymous said...

It's unfortunate that rental outlets have dried up, but the plus side of this is that if you buy a new Criterion or whatever and decided you don't want to keep it, there are now a lot more people who will want to buy it from you so that they themselves can see it. I've had to do this myself on several occasions and have generally been able to get my money back, or even make money out of the transaction.

Anonymous said...

(If you can't rent the car you want, will you steal it „just for a day”?)

This isn't really the same thing as copyright infringement. The equivalent might be "if you can't rent the car you want, would you use a magical car-copying machine to create a perfect reproduction, and then use the copy for a day before destroying it".

Besides, if someone stole my car, my reaction would be "shit, I don't have a car anymore", not "shit, someone just got a free car". If the latter can exist without the former, then I'm going to be a bit more ambivalent about it. Of course, that's not to say that there aren't serious consequences to copyright infringement.

Michael said...

You're a well-known film critic, which means you could very easily get free review copies of pretty much all these blu-rays and all you would have to do is write about them. Also, you'd be surprised by certain libraries' collections.

At the end of the day there are a number of options available to you; the fact that you find them inconvenient doesn't justify piracy.

Michael said...

Christoph's point is the one that gives me pause in all of this. And I do think that, as far as minority- interest artworks / titles are concerned, there has to be a new method of distribution, or at least a multi-tiered one, that can allow for greater access on multiple levels.

The discovery that much of the Criterion Collection is streamable on Hulu is one example, while not perfect. Who wouldn't pay that monthly fee, have access to that catalogue, and then buy the discs one fell in love with if a windfall of $$$ came around?

But that's Criterion. Can others follow suit? Remains to be seen. I would pay just below a ticket price (and have) for streaming VOD content, both rep films and current day-and-date films. (And I got nothing to "keep." Just like at the movies.)

We're headed there. Piracy will be made obsolete by technology. Or so it seems.

TL said...

While I empathize with Christoph's position, it's really not relevant to the question here. The dilemma is not downloading vs. purchasing, as a stipulation for the discussion is that the downloader isn't going to buy the product either way. So the content producer isn't losing sale.

As I said, I'm sympathetic to the problems of a small company, but ultimately, that's just going to be a cost of doing business in the modern industry. And it's a hurdle that I think can be overcome by cultivating a relationship with your customers such that they see real value in what you're doing and therefore want to pay for the product.

Victor Morton said...

"And that belief is incorrect. You are [stealing]. / Asserted but not proven."

It only has to be asserted because it is a legal fact (not an a priori assumption). The owner of BIRD ON A WIRE's home-video rights has the right under law, and procured legitimately at a cost under the expectation of recoupment, to be paid for home showings. The right to watch BIRD ON A WIRE at home is a good/service for which you must pay. It is therefore a legal commodity with a payment due under law. Taking someone you haven't legally paid for. Stealing. (I feel like Jennifer Anniston listening to Ron Livingston explain his ATM scam in OFFICE SPACE.)

Yes, it is a little more precise to say you are "violating the intellectual property rights," but that is a form of theft even if not exactly the same act as taking candy from a baby. People who favor strong IP rights debate the worthiness of the theft analogy — some say counterfeiting or trademark-infringement are better analogies. But even they are at least kissing cousins to burglary or mugging or drinking your milkshake — all forms of wrongs against property.


"theft in the aggregate ... moves the standard from abstract notions of intellectual property ... to what I was talking about, viz. evidence of material harm."

Actually, it doesn't, and this is what I mean when I've said you're missing the importance of the rule of law or the difference between Act Utilitarianism and Rule Utilitarianism. If a society judges that "theft in the aggregate" damages a social good (the production of art), that general judgement can be made on whether there is evidence of material harm. But the political *response* to such a judgement is going to be a law phrased in the general case that, once established, need not justify the harm claims in every particular case. To argue otherwise is to make every man his own jurist.

Now there is no doubt that should an actual piracy case be brought against Mike D'Angelo, a judge and/or jury can take particular circumstances into account. And some "relative judgments" are written into law anyway (the varying degrees of murder, "aggravated" vs. "simple" assault or rape, etc.). But that fact about particular cases and judgment doesn't moralize or legalize immoral or illegal behavior. Particularly since most laws in an actual society don't really depend on actual punishment or utilitarian fear thereof to achieve their effects but rather on moral-ecology conventions about the judgment the law is making, i.e., "doing this is wrong." Even if you get away with it. Even if the observed harm to flesh-and-bone parties is minimal or removed.


"if you truly believe in those, should also define borrowing as theft, since you are in fact depriving someone of potential income by doing so."

This is your rationalistic fetish showing. First of all, as I've already noted, the universe of friends who would lend you a disc is limited and the disc itself is a hard and scarce commodity, while the problem with file-sharing is its unlimited, no-cost, infinitely-copyable nature. Second, borrowing a disc presupposes an initially-licit purchase of that disc, the "borrow" factor of which is already factored into the cost (people have been borrowing books or albums forever and I am confident marketers know how often a typical book or tape is shared). Third, there is no practical way to enforce a law against friends' borrowing ("impossibility" actually is a legitimate prudential argument against a law); file-sharing can be shut down, given the political will.

Victor Morton said...

"Please explain how my downloading Film X devalues it for a service like Netflix that charges a monthly fee"

To some extent, by making their catalog that includes Film X incrementally less valuable because incrementally less unique, both individually and via systemic support. But the larger point is something on which I defer to Mr. Hochhausler. The damage is mostly borne by artists, whose work becomes less valuable to Netflix (or Miramax or Redbox).


"... assuming that I pay said fee (As of today I am a member with two such companies.)"

Irrelevant. The fact you may buy other goods from Wal-Mart doesn't make your shoplifting (or switching price tags) not theft (a form of theft).


"http://tinyurl.com/828cant"

Did you read that study? It said the consensus has become that piracy damaged the music industry, and found itself major piracy costs on foreign releases. And while, yes, it didn't find US costs, it also acknowledged that its piracy-proxy for the US was weaker. And regardless, social-"science" studies are limited in their ability to disprove causation because of severe limits on counterfactual control-groups. But here's what's awesome about that study -- the pages are covered with IP-protecting watermarks!!! The assertion refutes itself. Remember when Derrida tried to use French copyright laws about one of his own interviews against Wolin? That said far more than all his bafflegab criticisms of copyright as author-god.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what you're saying, but I make an exception for the Criterion Collection. With them, even if the movie winds up being a dud, I count the money I spent as a donation to help support a company that has been the source of a good 3/4s of my all time favorite movies.

md'a said...

One of the reasons so many titles don't get the treatment / availability you wish for is the incredibly small profit (if any) you can make with publishing films, on any format --- while the cost to scan / restore / design / package / advertise (and to buy the rights) remains the same. Now it does not help if the remaining potential clients (supporters) download illegally.

Hey, Christoph. I understand your concern, and I'm not saying piracy is fine across the board. Merely explaining why I feel okay about my version of it.

As it happens, I watched The City Below (which I quite enjoyed) via an illegal download. Because that's the only way for me to see it.

The implication of your reply is that you (or whoever owns the video rights to the film) lose money because I didn't pay for the copy I watched. But that's not so. I was never going to buy the film sight unseen, just to watch it a single time. If file-sharing had never existed, the world would be different only in that I would then be a person who has not seen The City Below. You (or whoever) would still not have any additional money.

Piracy is a problem when people who would otherwise have bought an film instead download a copy and treat that copy as if it were the disc they didn't buy. That's not what I'm doing. My downloads replace a rental, not a purchase. The purchase from which you would profit would be made not by me but by Netflix, or by a video store. And if they're not buying your movie for whatever reason, you simply lose that source of income. It's not magically replaced by individual renters who choose to outright buy the film instead. Those people don't exist.

I would much, much prefer that Netflix had bought your movie and made it available to me, because downloading is a pain in the ass, frankly, and I'd much rather watch films on my TV than on my computer. (Don't yet have a box that links the two.) But the alternative to my downloading it is not buying it. It's skipping it. What's more, had I loved the film (sorry, just thought it was quite impressive), I would have bought it, were that an option. So really you can only gain from what I do.

That said, I recognize that most people who download films don't operate that way, and I join you in condemning those who create a permanent video library via DVDrips. That's deeply uncool.

Victor Morton said...

Theo wrote:

"(Point being, maybe we shouldn't let corporations with an obvious agenda be the ones who define what does and doesn’t constitute “theft”.)"

And all this time, I thought it was the law that defined "property."

And it does so all the way down, including what you can have as property (there was unpleasantness in America in the 1860s over this, I've heard).

More seriously ... why do people think that because property is a social convention (it is), it therefore dubious. Personhood is a social convention too. So is every form of linguistic act (through the conventional nature of language, if nothing else).

That doesn't mean we are not morally bound by those conventions, or only bound when we happen to agree with them or find them congenial to our interests (which, in my honest judgment, is what animates this issue).

md'a said...

The right to watch BIRD ON A WIRE at home is a good/service for which you must pay.

False. A neighbor lends me the disc. I watch it in my home. Perfectly legal, I had every right, cost me nothing. Again, your only argument here is that...

the problem with file-sharing is its unlimited, no-cost, infinitely-copyable nature.

...which means that the pool of individuals from whom I can borrow the film has been hugely expanded. Which is certainly a gigantic problem for artists and corporations, with which they'll be wrestling for some time to come. But it has no bearing on the question of whether it's morally wrong.

But the political *response* to such a judgement is going to be a law phrased in the general case that, once established, need not justify the harm claims in every particular case.

Or the law can be phrased in a way that only criminalizes the harmful aspect. Hence we have a law that makes it illegal to fire a gun at another human being, but not a law that simply makes it illegal to fire a gun period.

file-sharing can be shut down, given the political will.

Only by shutting down the Internet altogether. But they can make it more difficult for the casual pirate.

Second, borrowing a disc presupposes an initially-licit purchase of that disc, the "borrow" factor of which is already factored into the cost (people have been borrowing books or albums forever and I am confident marketers know how often a typical book or tape is shared).

Most (though not all, I believe) of the films being shared on the Internet were licitly purchased by someone before being passed to others. Apparently the "borrow" factor needs to be revised for the digital age—though not by that much, according to the study I linked to.

The damage is mostly borne by artists, whose work becomes less valuable to Netflix (or Miramax or Redbox).

Except that the films I download aren't being purchased by those companies to begin with, which is the very reason I download them.

The fact you may buy other goods from Wal-Mart doesn't make your shoplifting (or switching price tags) not theft (a form of theft).

But it's not a question of buying "other goods" vs. "these here goods." Wal-Mart doesn't have a system whereby you pay them a monthly fee and can take whatever you want, so the analogy is (yes) wack.

Did you read that study?

Indeed I did. And it clearly suggested that piracy does little to no damage so long as licit access to the material is also available.

Theo said...

Victor wrote:

"And all this time, I thought it was the law that defined "property.""

Well, the law (and the system it enshrines) is flawed. That was kind of my point. It's also shaped by lobbying from corporations; that's my other (implicit) point.

Victor again:

"More seriously ... why do people think that because property is a social convention (it is), it is therefore dubious."

Well, you'll notice I didn't object to a house or a plot of land being defined as property. I just don't think works of Art belong in the same category. That property is a social convention doesn't mean we can't argue over what it entails.

Even if Art can be owned, the idea of persistent copyright is puzzling (to me). If I make a table, that's my property; if I sell it to you, that's now your property. Art seems to be the only sphere where I expect some kind of commission every time you sit down for lunch at my table.

And yes - following on from something Christoph wrote - I suppose I'd lobby for some kind of culture tax. We now have the technology to make all film culture freely available, and it's clearly in the public interest to do so. Then again, I live in Europe.

Also, of course, none of this applies directly to md'a, who really does seem to use downloading as a last resort.

PARALLEL FILM said...

Dear md'a, while I am glad you saw my film (and 'quite' liked it) it's a slightly different case then the one you made before - because my film is unavailable in the US (which makes the sharing almost an act of solidarity --- but for the record: you could, technically, buy a subtitled German DVD via amazon or the like, but even then you would enter a grey zone because the world sales company does not want 'poaching on unsold territory'. My own personal income is unrelated to the DVD sales).

I agree however with some of the other commenters that the problem will and has to be solved technically. Once VOD is fair priced, easy and the choice more or less unlimited, piracy will vanish. The problem is the in-between we are in, and for quite some time.

At Revolver we released (in coop with Filmgalerie 451) a couple of films that are very dear to us (Weerasethakul's BLISSFULLY YOURS, the Dardenne's LE FILS, Schanelec's MARSEILLE, Porterfield's PUTTY HILL among others) and that were not out on DVD in Germany.

While we keep the package extremely slim (because we have to): no extras, simple cover, and because of our relations to the filmmakers, the making of these DVDs is relatively cheap (if you compare it to Criterion, very very cheap). The resulting consumer price tag is modest but not low end, because of the small circulation. We thought and still think as cinephile missionaries and that it is important that these films are seen here. Anyway, from a business point of view, the DVDs simply don't make enough money, which is a shame because it hinders us to enlarge our activities (there are so many worthy films you can't buy) and forces us personally to find other sources of income.

Sorry, long comment. Best, Christoph

Ryan said...

My only comments here. The debate, at its core, is almost entirely economic. At bottom, it's about an antiquated intellectual property law regime hanging on while technological changes rapidly diminish the value of license holders. Said license holders are looking for ways to maintain value. So existing laws and economic models are not keeping pace with technological changes and consumer adjustments. So we're in a period of flux.

The doctrinaire person might insist that we need to strictly abide by the letter of the law until the legal adjustments are enacted. But of course, it's idiotic to strictly comply with the letter of the law at all times, and I won't belabor the 10,000 scenarios that would expose the inanity of this mindset.

Morality doesn't have anything to do with this. I'm hard-pressed to find any moral basis for me to yield completely to the preferences of a license holder. I see economic reasons for doing so. And legal reasons. But moral? Let's not tarnish genuine moral concerns by suggesting that this kind of issue rises to that.

There are only two ethical questions here: the first, as Mike posed, "is anyone harmed by my conduct"? This is clearly no. Unlike a tangle product, the owner is not deprived of the product's use in any way. And if you would not have bought it anyway, the rights holder does not suffer a loss of profit. There's no actual harm whatsoever here.

The second question is, "if everyone behaved like me, would others be harmed?" In the narrow instance that Mike describes, the answer is still "no." In the World on a Wire example, I'm not going to buy that movie at any price point higher than $8.00. If a service allows me to pay a $3.00 fee to watch it streaming, I'll happily do that. But in a world where you're left to either purchase the disc for $29.99 or not watch the film at all, I'll opt for the latter. And if everyone similarly situated to me makes the same choice, Criterion does not lose anything.

It's up to Criterion to exploit this under-served market by finding other distribution channels to offer products at a price point where they can make money. (And they've presumably done that by making a deal with Hulu Plus.)

In short, we're in a situation where it'll take a while before businesses, lawmakers, etc. can sort out a distribution system and intellectual property rights scheme that adequately compensates content-providers and protect rights-holders.

This is like most debates about economics in this country. Within 10 seconds of debate an economic problem becomes a moral one, and all perspective is lost.

*Note: I'm not trying to justify my conduct as I'm not in the habit of downloading movies myself.

md'a said...

Dead-on, Ryan. Thanks for the cogent summary. Especially this:

It's up to Criterion to exploit this under-served market by finding other distribution channels to offer products at a price point where they can make money. (And they've presumably done that by making a deal with Hulu Plus.)

Not just Criterion, of course, but everybody. It's been demonstrated (most prominently by the iTunes store) that if you provide a simple and fairly priced method of obtaining content legally, most people with the means will avail themselves of it, even if they could circumvent it and pay nothing. So if you look around and notice that people like me are downloading catalog Blu-ray titles, and recognize that we're doing so because we're unable to rent them anywhere, fix the problem. Provide us with a channel. We'll use it. I certainly will (and as the post above this one shows, I in fact did).

Slayton said...

I live in NZ and there is absolutely no distribution for foreign films here, even if they come here for a festival the ratings board requires a separate rating process for theatrical, festival and DVD releases so unless a film is rated for DVD it is illegal to sell it here. Unless I spend a fortune in shipping and import for lesser-knowns, foreigns or classic (which for, let MoC know, I would NOT be able to make a profit on resale) there's really no other way for me to see some of these films without going overseas. I try to justify my downloading by only downloading films that are a) unavailable in this country b) old enough to be in the public domain. But then again mostly those are the films that interest me - downloading a film like Harry Potter would get me in trouble with a studio that actually has the clout and the cash to go after individual downloaders. But with a blockbuster like that I'd just as easily watch it at the movies and 9/10 it wouldn't be something I'd be interested in seeing anyway.

I'm not really a believer in intellectual property - I think once you make something it really is 'out there'. As an artist that's a cut to the ego but I think in this day and age it's a cut you have to take. Plus, if the goal is to find and absorb as much art as possible you're going to have to resort to 'piracy' to get obscure titles or titles translated into your language.

Gabe Klinger said...

Let's talk about piracy for a moment -- *real* piracy, not online file-sharing -- which has reached a level of sophistication so far lacking in the realm of legitimate distribution.

I will give an example: a "pirate" in Lima or Calcutta or Manila will lug his crates of DVDs around an entire city for 10 hours a day looking for customers. He will be waiting for you outside of the subway station on your way to and from work, a few meters away from the corner store where you buy milk for your kids, he will even come to your table at the restaurant or bar where you're sitting and let you calmly peruse his stash. If you become a regular client, he will give you discounts and personalize the experience by finding movies that you like, much like an "on demand" type of service.

And this man, for the most part, is just trying to make a buck like everyone else. He has no time to engage in internet debates, he doesn't care about the Criterion Collection or Masters of Cinema (except if his clients ask him) and he doesn't understand why something for which there clearly exists a demand is forbidden and thought of as theft when working folks honestly can't afford to go to the movies much less import a Bluray from the UK or or whatever.

Films have the uncanny effect of making people happy; they are also a great tool to distract kids (ask any parent) and calm oneself down after a stressful day of work. And the class that cannot afford to buy films legitimately obtains them from the pirate down the street, simply and cheaply, because they want the same luxury as the people who *can* afford to buy DVD's and go to the movies. And why shouldn't that alternative be available to them?

Entertainment executives, film producers and corporate lobbyists thousands of kilometers away who have absolutely no foot in the real world attempt everything in their power to penalize these people: those who provide as well as those who buy.

If piracy is theft, than to steal from movie studios who make the experience of movies an elitist, upper middle-class industry is, frankly, an important act of class disobedience.

Wake the fuck up, people.

Sure, Mike D'Angelo has the resources to watch a lot movies and occasionally opts to download them, much like just about every other cinephile on the planet. We all have our reasons. Some of those are motivated by money, others by convenience. Those reasons don't need to be qualified in an internet forum. Mike, your attempt was earnest, but you don't need to feed the corporatethink out there.

This isn't about Mike D'Angelo or a single mom in Manila. This is about greedy assholes and their powerful lobbies shaping our perception of what constitutes theft. Greedy assholes who try to determine what people have the right to experience and what they don't have the right to experience.

If Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster and other companies had the smarts to make movies accessible and affordable in the same way as these pirates do, people everywhere would be very pleased. But this sophistication doesn't yet exist, and so piracy thrives...

Condemning people for not following a flawed, vague copyright laws is not the way out of this.

The Nigerian and Indian film industries have found plenty of alternatives by producing and distributing instead of importing and settling on meager profit shares. Most of the world has not yet caught up because of the powerful MPAA lobby and its presence all over the world for more than a half century. But all of this anti-piracy talk is going to catch up with Hollywood, and they're the ones who are going to end up looking pretty foolish.

If you want to talk about entitlement, you needn't look further than the American entertainment industry.

profoblivion said...

@Victor. I think it's ridiculous to apply rule of law to economics. Isn't that why we now consider corporations to be people?

Matt Zurcher said...

It's clear that the 20th Century model of ownership -> sale economics is outdated. Technology and innovation creates a truly open market. There is nothing wrong with capitalizing on technological revolution, provided we keep a certain compassion for creativity.

Our generation expanded the issue of open-source material, and will also have to solve it by creating a new business model.

Brian said...

I've still never heard a convincing argument that file-sharing is significantly different from, say, checking out DVDs at a public library. The library buys one copy, it circulates to potentially hundreds of patrons. The studio gets nada from those patrons' use of the DVD.

File-sharing is simply part of the world we live in. Mike's conscientious justification makes perfect sense, but I don't think it's even necessary. Checking out a DVD from the library isn't some last-ditch desperation move when no other options are available, it's something you do because the library is a resource at your disposal. So too with file-sharing. I fail to see how this attitude constitutes "entitlement." I'm a law-abiding citizen and I pay for my Internet access.

Brian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...

This I can speak too, as I work in the library field. The availability of a DVD at a library is limited in a way that torrents are not. A finite number of copies are available for precise periods of time to people who can prove they live, work or study in (and therefore pay taxes or fees to) a specific community. And in my experience, few discs survive to be checked out by "hundreds of patrons". A few dozen checkouts before scratches and scuffs become untenable and the item must be replaced seems more typical.

As a relative luddite, I haven't tried filesharing myself yet. Would I turn to it if I didn't work in a library and didn't live in a town with decent (if not NYC-scale) repertory screenings and some surviving independent video stores? Maybe I'm the 'entitled' one, hoping this antiquated distribution infrastructure survives past its usefulness for society at large.

Gabe Klinger's 'class disobedience' argument is quite compelling. I do wonder what Nick Wrigley might have to say about that one. But I also wonder how many people in my town are missing out on increasingly-rare screenings of films they'd enjoy, made a world away from the MPAA, because they busy all their evenings stickin' it to the Hollywood studios in their bedrooms.

I keep thinking back to the founders of the first film societies in the 1920s and 30s. Does the invention of new technologies confer new rights onto individuals with access to that technology? How about onto individuals without access to it? Does it confer new responsibilities as well? I really don't know.

Max said...

Hi md'a,

the problems in my opinion here are some of the following:

1. How do you know if nobody is harmed? Where did you not see somebody getting harmed? I truly disagree on that because, yeah, some people get harmed by that (even if it's corporations, Blockbuster says hi...). If budgets for films become smaller (talking for Germany), then this is direct result of a cut in revenue income for a product and it's creators (not due to 'cheaper' technique; labour is the same). And a cut in revenue incomes in film is either due to less tickets sold in cinema and/or fewer and cheaper options after the exploitation of movies after theatrical releases. So, yeah, because people are not willing to pay for a product, my budgets shrink, therefore my salary shrinks. Thanks.

2. If the options are to spend money or not watch it: does that logic work for other crafted products as well? Would you steal a chair too only because it's expensive? And only because the movie itself is nothing you can touch or sit on doesn't mean it's the same. Btw, why isn't food for free? Before we watch films and listen to music for free, people shouldn't starve. But would you steal food because it's too expensive? Probably not...

People put labour in a product that you are not willing to pay. That is not correct.

md'a said...

Max, I feel like you didn't actually read the fairly lengthy discussion that's taken place here, much less my original post. 'Cause you've just repeated stuff that's already been addressed.

So, yeah, because people are not willing to pay for a product, my budgets shrink, therefore my salary shrinks. Thanks.

I'm not talking here about people who would have paid for a product, but instead choose to download it for free. That is indeed a problem. I'm talking about instances in which the pirate would never have bought the item, and resorts to downloading solely because there is no means of renting it. There is no lost sale in this scenario. No income is being diverted from anybody. The people who didn't buy your product are the rental outlets. Bitch at them. (I am.)

If the options are to spend money or not watch it: does that logic work for other crafted products as well? Would you steal a chair too only because it's expensive?

No, I would not. But (to steal from Mindy Kaling) if I needed to rent a car, and suddenly there were no cars available for rental and self-righteous moralists were telling me I should either stay home or buy a car and resell it, and someone who owns a car could magically create an identical car by snapping her fingers and was willing to give the duplicate car to me, I would use that car without the slightest qualm, especially if I were then either going to (a) snap my own magical fingers and destroy the car or (b) discover that I love the car, destroy the duplicate, and buy a brand-new copy of the same car.

That's the correct stupid analogy in this instance.

Michael said...

This continual conflation of law with morality sure is getting tiresome.

If it continues, I'll share an amusing anecdote. For now, I'll just go make some more PDFs of copyrighted texts for my students.

Jared Peace said...

As I understand it, Mike would be considered a pirate and a thief even if he had downloaded the standard-def version of ANATOMY - i.e., a rip of a DVD he already owns. Technically it's still illegal and morally, I imagine the same people would argue that since he only paid for the movie in one particular delivery format (disc), stealing a digitized version of the film is taking away potential income from the technical wizards who earn their living compressing films into various codecs and file formats for online distribution.

So how about it? Is downloading movies you already own an act of theft and morally wrong? How rigid do you get with this stuff?

Dave said...

If the law changed so that it would be completely legal to download movies would Victor still be against the practice and willing to argue at length about it?

Wynyard said...

I haven't flipped my wallet for a film in 10 years: Cinema ticket as gift, Ad TV/Cable, pilfering DVDs/BDs from family/friends with wretched taste. (I lie. I ponied up for 1 DVD back in 05: Crumb. Still haven't split the plastic. Scared it will alter my low opinion of a childhood hero). Yes, I miss out on a lot of "holy shit" movies but I cannot, just cannot, download cinema to watch on my computer. Forget moral quandaries: HOW THE FUCK CAN YOU ENJOY A MOVIE ON A FUCKING COMPUTER SCREEN? Yeesh. I can't even watch a Rihanna's-got-crabs-she-needs-scratching "music" video without thinking I'd rather be watching this vapid pap in glorious HD on my 60", not on this glary little rectangle I see before me.

ps OMG, there's a picture on the website! You've changed Mike, you've changed!

Bille said...

@Wynyard -- You can quite easily watch 'computer content' on whatever screen you like (or, just as well, watch content from legally purchased discs on your computer screen).

gcgiles said...

I’m late to this, and my post is long, so I’m sorry in advance on two counts, but…

As soon as Hochhäusler joined the converstaion, I felt a palpable contrition emanating from Mike’s and Michael’s posts, as if they had encountered the exception they admire that they must somehow accommodate. The exception, however, is the person perceived as the legitimate artist, which of course, is about as subjective a perception as any on planet Earth. A respected filmmaker cries foul, and suddenly it “gives pause,” tempering the rather sweeping assertions of art, or any intellectual production, as something corporations and courts of law have distorted into “property,” in the same way that corporations have been made “people.”

But speaking as another “producer of art” (and I’ll try to stop scare-quoting from here on out), I do find that fans sharing and burning my music has demonstrably limited the number of meals I can claim as a reward from the decades I have spent attempting to perfect the art I produce; I am not bitter about this, and many of those people who share my music freely are friends (however little they have backed their admiration and pleasure with financial support): I see the writing on the wall when it comes to the future of media artifacts.

Yet there is a pedestrian, dare-I-say-moral responsibility implicated in all of this—the kind that directly involves hunger and housing and goes beyond a “cut to the ego,” as Slayton put it—as much as Michael threatens us with an anecdote that will ideally prohibit the egregious conflation of morality with legality. I will anticipate his threat with one of my own personal anecdotes: We performed at Noisepop this year, and a band that played before us had traveled all the way from Montreal to San Francisco, performing only once in Denver along the way (in other words, not even hand-to-mouth compensation). I bought their CD for $20, which is rather expensive. I could have easily found my bandmate who also bought it and simply burned it from him; after all, I hadn’t heard the recording yet, and one could say that committing my last twenty-dollar bill to an unheard CD was unnecessarily frivolous. But I was essentially giving them a quarter tank of gas. And that’s it. Doing anything less, I would consider myself a bit of a wanker. Because I am in their shoes, and this kind of sympathy/empathy is irreplaceable in the calculus of who-deserves-a-dollar-for-their-trouble. Since many commenters have been speaking with a more juridical tenor, this story might seem jejune; but for me, it’s essential to any argument involving artistic production. And in this vein, I think that buying Criterion DVDs blind, even if you pay a little more and wind up disappointed with the result, is a mutually beneficial contribution to a company that continually justifies its worth, even in terms of accommodating minority tastes and empty wallets by offering hundreds of obscure films, many unseen on DVD—available in HD with meticulous subtitling—on Hulu for ten measly bucks a month.

(sadly, to be continued...)

gcgiles said...

If what I have written is perceived as a naïve anecdote, then I would argue that we have nothing but anecdotes to resort to, whether it’s Mike’s original story of downloading the Preminger film, Gabe’s story of the “pirate” in Lima, or whatever Michael is threatening us with. ☺ Because I am focusing on compensation for artists, my anecdote is aimed at limiting the scope of the argument presented here, not putting a folksy, self-righteous crimp in the thread.

Technology has at once rewarded the artist with access and destroyed the value of that access. I feel insanely torn between embracing the technologies that enable young bands to produce beautiful albums without corporate overseers, and decrying them because they have totally devalued the market worth of that art. Recording artists—aside from an elite few—cannot make a living with their work. And I’m not talking scraping by, la vie bohème, ramen noodles eaten uncooked like a cracker—I am talking zip. And it is work, and it deserves compensation (i.e., subsistence living).

I wish more working artists would speak up here (who, unlike Hochhäusler, depend on sales of DVDs/CDs/mp3s/what-have-you). This isn’t to devalue criticism, which is equally an art (and equally devastated by our digital economy), but it would be nice to hear from more filmmakers who can probably attest to the ambivalent positions in which digital technologies have put them.

This is a more specific debate, I believe, than the fundamental vulnerability of jurisprudence to corporate influence, or world poverty (where it seemed Gabe was heading, even if he was talking specifically about DVD hawkers): simply put, do artists deserve minimum wage? Can we consider intellectual property rights as a possible solution to this problem at all, even if the current tenets of copyright law may be flawed at best, and arbitrarily organized to suit corporate interests, at worst?

md'a said...

As soon as Hochhäusler joined the converstaion, I felt a palpable contrition emanating from Mike’s and Michael’s posts, as if they had encountered the exception they admire that they must somehow accommodate.

Don't really think my own tenor much changed. Obviously I respect Hochhäusler as a filmmaker, but I didn't apologize to him in any way for having illegally downloaded The City Below, a film I could not have watched a single time for a reasonable price.

Please note that I don't endorse all the pro-pirating arguments being made hereabouts. Gabe is a friend, but I'm not really down with his notion that movies belong to the people (to oversimplify greatly). My own position has more to do with a fundamental failure of the marketplace. If you are a filmmaker (I know you're not, but it's an easier example from my perspective) who believes he's losing money to piracy of my sort—i.e., people like me are downloading your movie illegally because there's no place that will rent the brand-new Blu-ray to us—then your job is to figure out how to provide us with an alternative by which you'll be compensated. If Netflix and Blockbuster refuse to buy your movie because they believe there's insufficient demand, or just because they're trying to phase out physical media altogether, then figure something else out. Create a website and rent it out yourself for $5 plus postage (which is way more expensive than an average rental, but still much cheaper than buying it outright—WHICH WE'RE NOT GOING TO DO SIGHT UNSEEN—and then reselling it as a considerable loss). Or something. But I say again that whatever the overall costs of piracy, what I am doing is not depriving any artist of income. If pirating became impossible overnight, I would not suddenly start buying the movies I'm downloading. I would simply be forced to read books instead.

gcgiles said...

Thanks for the thoughtful response, Mike. I agree that, by citing several of you, I have given the false impression that many here have carbon-copy points of view, which obviously isn't the case. Threads inevitably play the game of "telephone." As it stands, I'm not sure I can refute your specific argument! So, for what it's worth...

Anonymous said...

film companies should take the same direction as the music industry- buy directly from the content creator. Theyre happy -You're happy and you get it when its created.

The important people will continue to receive the money they duly deserve and continue to create fantastic content.

Brad said...

You think you have problems. I was given too many bottles of champagne for my engagement and now the refrigerator's full.

Michael said...

What exactly is so difficult about just going without?

md'a said...

You're right. I'll just abandon the thing I love most and find an entirely new primary interest at age 44.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of two friends I have. Both of them have recently gotten into comic books and mangas and graphic novels. One of my friends hates piracy mostly out of fear of litigation and malware. He also believes in supporting the artists and writers of the content you love. As a result, he recently just paid out hundreds in getting a hold of some older comics from like, you know stuff that is like over 20 years old.

My other friend, is the exact opposite, she loves digital media and she wanted to read all of the comics of her fave superheroes, she ended up finding all of them online through torrents for free.

When my other friend confronted her over it, she explained that what he bought wasn't supporting the authors anymore than what she did.

Which is true. None of the comics that they had could be bought directly from Marvel or DC anymore in either physical or digital format.

As for myself...I always end up buying the legal stuff at one point or another mostly because I like the convenience and I love that Amazon doesn't require me to download the content and give up computer space which both Apple and torrent websites require you to do.