Thursday, November 10, 2016

Art vs. Copyright - Why Piracy Is Bad, but Not Evil

Making money with one's own creations is a human right,
but there are also reasons for people to download pirated content.

Barely anyone would be happy to find his work published by someone else without having been asked for permission. There is much work behind every piece of art, so it absolutely makes sense that only the respective copyright holder has the right to decide what happens to an artwork.

However, art lives by sharing and exchange and this leads to many conflicts, especially when it comes to illegal distribution on the internet. Here you have the copyright holders who claim to have been robbed, pirates who make money with content created by other people without paying for the license and those who download or stream pirated content for various reasons.

Let's take a closer look at this problem.

Illegal Downloads and Streaming as Theft

A few years ago I've read an interview with a musician who said something like: "The song you download illegally is the bread I can't buy for my children tomorrow." Well, please allow me to state that this is just nonsense. The musician I'm talking about was a member of a band with worldwide fame. If a 13-year-old downloads one of his songs illegally because he gets only little allowance the musician's children won't die from hunger. I'm 100% sure about that.

Illegal downloads and streaming are often portrayed as being just the same as shoplifting. I think it's a very poor comparison. Sure composing and recording a song is hard work and the artist deserves to be paid, but let's note that we live in a digital age and thus are perfectly able to reduce production costs. It isn't long ago that a musician didn't only have to compose and record a song but also invest in data storage devices in order to sell it, be it records, cassettes or CDs, which meant that you had only a limited amount of copies you could sell. Nowadays you can sell an unlimited amount of copies via iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and so on. If you steal a CD from a shop it means there is someone out there who won't be able to buy it. If you download a song illegally from the internet everybody else who wants to acquire it legally is still able to do so.

So let me clarify one thing here:
An illegal download or stream is not money the artist loses. It's money he just doesn't get.

I'm not trying to say that internet piracy is good, but I want to make it clear that there is a huge difference between theft and illegal copying: If you own a shop and someone breaks in and steals all your merchandize you're bankrupt; if someone "just" copies your merchandize your sales might drop, but you can still exist. And I speak of "might" on purpose. Because there is no guarantee that someone who acquired an illegal copy for free would have bought it if the option to get a free copy wouldn't exist.

There may be many people out there who prefer to consume pirated content for free only because they are greedy and try to avoid spending money whenever they can. But this doesn't apply to everyone. To understand this we have to look at the reasons why people download pirated content - and there are plenty.

Valid Reasons for Downloading Content Illegally

I'm guilty myself. As much as I enjoy supporting artists I like, sometimes I actually consider it better or even feel forced to take the illegal way.

The first reason is that in some cases I don't want to pay because I don't want to support a franchise. For example, I do feel the need to stay up to date on crap like the Twilight series and 50 Shades of Grey, so I can explain why exactly these movies are crap in a discussion about art and aesthetics. Sometimes I also just want to analyze why such crappy franchises are so popular and what it means for art and society. The problem is: I do not want to support the creators. I know that me refusing to pay for things I consider not to be worth paying for doesn't have a noteworthy effect, so I do this silent protest merely for myself. Simply because I'm not sure if I could sleep with a clear conscience after paying for a cinema ticket to watch 50 Shades of Grey.

Sometimes, however, I do stream movies about which I don't know if they're good or bad. I watch them illegally in order to find out if they are worth paying for. And it happens quite regularly that I first watch a movie illegally and then buy it on DVD. If I really like a movie and know that I'll definitely rewatch it I want it in good quality and free from internet issues. In other words: If an artwork is good it's in my own interest to buy a legal copy of it.

The same applies to music downloads. It's been a while since I've last downloaded a pirated song, since it's really easy and comfortable to get a legal mp3 file of almost any song nowadays, but before services like iTunes conquered the internet I did download songs I liked illegally, because it seemed irrational to me to buy a whole album on CD if I wanted only one song. However, when I noticed that songs by a certain interpret started to pile up on my hard drive I often ended up buying whole albums legally. Nowadays I use YouTube to find interprets I like and I often listen to their illegally uploaded music before deciding to actually buy it. I don't listen to radio - how if not via illegal uploads on YouTube am I supposed to discover my next favourite band?

Things can also be the other way round. It happened to me a couple of times that I discovered that a not so old DVD of mine was broken. I didn't do anything to those discs, I used them just like any other DVD, and this means: extremely gently. So if a DVD in my possession gets broken it's because the disc I bought happened to be of low quality. I could buy a new DVD, of course, and I don't mind rebuying things I've had in my possession for a long time or buying movies I already have on VHS, but I do mind rebuying a DVD I've bought only a year ago. So my conscience is pretty calm when I compensate the loss with an illegal stream. And, by the way, the same applies when my legal copy is out of my reach. While I was studying in southern Germany many of my DVDs were still at my parents' home in north Germany. I had paid for them, so I considered it my right to watch these movies whenever I wanted.

Then there are many cases of things I want to buy legally but simply can't, because they aren't available. For example, I consider myself a fan of the Hakuouki franchise and I would just love to get a legal copy of the game. The problem is: There is no PC version of it. I'm not that much of a gamer to buy a PSP or a Nintendo 3DS in order to play only one game once in a few months. This would be just stupid. So I ended up downloading a pirated PSP version and playing it on PC through an emulator, but I still hope they'll release the game on PC. I mean, what's so difficult about it? It's a rather simple visual novel game, so it can't be that hard to make a PC port. I could, of course, buy a PSP or Nintendo 3DS version and then still play the pirated version with the emulator, but, let's be honest, I'd rather spend the money on fan merchandize, i.e. on something I can actually use.

When speaking of availability artworks from foreign countries should be mentioned. Being born in Russia and having the natural need to stay up to date on Russian culture I sometimes don't have another choice but to use the internet, because many things are really hard to get over here in Germany. But since I speak Russian fluently this problem is rather harmless compared to my problems with anime. I generally try to watch everything in its original language with only a few exceptions. If I don't speak the language I look for a version with subtitles. So what if a movie or a series isn't released beyond its original country? In the case of anime there are subtitled versions made by fans. They're often released very quickly after the original release, so fans from other countries can enjoy the newest episodes as well. What are anime fans who don't speak Japanese supposed to do without those fansubs? Stop being fans? This would be cruel and counterproductive, if you ask me.

In the context of availability piracy becomes even heroic in a dictatorial regime. In the Soviet Union there was a very lively production of illegal copies of foreign music as well as Russian music and books that were forbidden by the government. What are people supposed to do when their government doesn't allow them to acquire something legally? People are not fools. They always find a way to get what they want and they are right to do so.

The last reason I want to mention is the most obvious one: money. Sometimes people are just poor and can't afford to buy a product of art legally. If they wouldn't download a pirated version for free they wouldn't get it at all, so for the copyright holder it actually makes no difference. I do know for sure that the students of the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, one of the oldest film schools in the world, heavily rely on illegal online streams of movies, simply because they have to watch so many movies that they would go bankrupt if they watched every movie legally. Most of them also have illegal copies of Adobe Premiere Pro and other professional video editing software, simply because they are, just like most other students in the world, not particularly wealthy and can't afford all that ridiculously expensive software they need. I'm lucky I wasn't in a film school, but even as a literature student I sometimes just had to get illegal copies of books I wouldn't be able to get from the library in time (because they were lent, missing or simply never acquired) and to photocopy whole books, because I knew I would need them for a long time and buying them would be too expensive.

Art as a Human Right

Enjoying art and making money with one's own creations are both human rights, as can be read in the 27th article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
(1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
(2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
Both paragraphs seem like nice ideals, but looking at the situation today, §1 and §2 seem to be in conflict with each other. People who use illegal content violate §2, this is obvious. However, current copyright laws and the way how artworks are distributed often limit access to art, be it by charging too much money, enforcing certain conditions like owning one particular console, nationality or punishing people trying to get access to artworks instead of giving them the possibility to do so legally. And, well, excluding groups of people from enjoying certain artworks seems like a violation of §1 to me.

We live in a world where cinema tickets, books, games and so on grow more and more expensive. The way how art is distributed in our capitalistic world just isn't right. And there's also the aspect that even though I know I have no right to decide what is worth paying for and what not I still believe it would be only fair if the audience had at least a little control over the quality of artworks, since the sheer number of people seeing a movie only says something about the quality the promotional campaign, not the movie itself.

The internet sets many things right: You can choose which artist to support by giving likes or stars, you can safely discover artists you didn't know without any financial risks like buying music you'll never listen to again, it helps with intercultural exchange and makes art available to everyone.

The best thing about it is: Many companies and copyright holders have already realized it. There's iTunes and other services where you can download music legally, safely, comfortably and for a more than acceptable price. There are also similar services that allow you to watch movies and TV shows - and you even get a flat rate, so you pay only once a month and can watch whatever you want as much as you want. And Mosfilm, the largest Soviet and now Russian film studio has even launched an official YouTube channel where you can watch many Soviet movie classics for free, in Full HD and some even with English subtitles.

There are still issues, since the movie or TV show you want to watch may be not on the platform you chose to pay for, but generally I find this concept brilliant. The situation with legal accessibility of art is constantly improving through the internet and slowly but surely comes close to my personal ideal.

This ideal may not be feasible, but I think it's worth striving for: I believe it would be a great idea to collect a culture tax the height of which would be determined by the income, so everyone would pay only as much as they can afford to. The money raised this way would be distributed among artists, depending on how much they create and how many people enjoy their works. And since the authors would already be paid through taxes it would mean that all art could be accessed for free. Well, maybe there could be small prizes to cover the expenses for material in the case of books, CDs, DVDs and so on, but as for the artwork itself - museums, exhibitions and everything that can be downloaded from the internet would be free. This concept needs much refinement, of course, but I believe this idea would lead to more fairness and actually kill or at least narrow down piracy. In other words, I like my idea.

What are your experiences with internet piracy? What do you think about my idea? Please let me know in the comments!

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