Every child of the DVD generation knows the ad:
“YOU WOULDN’T STEAL A CAR.”
Its battered font, flashing imagery and downright infectious background music are carved into our collective consciousness. While its aesthetics have had lasting impacts on us, the idea behind the ad doesn’t appear to have had the same effect. With the illegal consumption of film, TV and music as an everyday reality, the ad’s message was lost on us along the way.
“YOU WOULDN’T STEAL A MOVIE.”
As it turns out, many of us would. Accessing online content has been a crucial part of most people’s lockdown survival strategy. As a late-comer to the realm of Spotify, and yet to enter the realm of Netflix, I have made avid use of YouTube to MP3 converters for my music over the years, and still regularly stream shows and movies on pirated sites. The explosion of the TV adaption of Sally Rooney’s Normal People in recent weeks confirms that I am not alone in this. People revealed their piracy habits in their passionate discourse about the show before the relevant episodes had been made available in Ireland – and it’s completely socially acceptable.
“The argument I’m left with is: but everybody does it.”
While I generally try to be a morally conscious person, I appear to have a moral blind spot when it comes to piracy. Any ethical contemplation of the issue leaves me in no doubt as to its depravity. I could argue that movie studios have so much money anyway ― that I can’t be hurting them, but however true this may be for Hollywood blockbusters, it is not for smaller independent films and shows. In this way, you could argue illegal platforms provide further recognition to these shows which may have had limited viewing otherwise, but when their creators rely on the revenue from people paying to watch their work at home, or paying to go and see it, this excuse also crumbles. You could argue that you’re never going to pay for these products anyway, so nobody is losing money in the piracy process, but as our friends who made our favourite ad have done, apply that logic to a car or a handbag and it doesn’t seem to stand up anymore. The argument I’m left with is: but everybody does it. Yet, when caught with our hand in the cookie jar, this is about as weak as our defence could get. So why do I still do it? And why does it not feel wrong?
By polling fellow students, it’s clear that, for most part, the answer is convenience. With regards to film, a lot of people say they would look legally first, but if they couldn’t find a particular show or movie, they would switch to illegal streaming. Many use the words “last resort” in their accounts of this, which implies exhausting efforts to find a legal stream, culminating in the eventual use of its illegal counterpart with remorse weighing on the rest of their viewing experience. But the reality of this expression is very different: if it’s not on Netflix, or an equivalent paid subscription streaming service, we have no qualms deviating from media legality. Our last resort choice to pirate media is activated in ten seconds or less, and our remorse lasts no longer than the opening credits, if even.
“From the isolation of our duvet, our profound investment in the plot of Ratatouille seems far removed from any of the detrimental consequences we may imagine it to have.”
This speedy dissipation of remorse is aided by the ease with which we can convince ourselves our crime is victimless. From the isolation of our duvet, our profound investment in the plot of Ratatouille seems far removed from any of the detrimental consequences we may imagine it to have. The consequences, though, are manifold. Firstly, piracy has a huge financial impact on creators, distributors and consumers. In 2018, the Irish Times reported that the Irish economy loses approximately €60 million a year to the pirating of just TV and film, which can be added to losses of a similar nature made in music, theatre, comedy, photography, literature and app development. Moreover, a Grant Thornton report estimated the loss of 500 jobs in TV and film in 2015 as a result of this financial damage.
“For those living paycheck to paycheck, revenue lost to piracy could be financially devastating, leading to forced termination of their careers in the arts.”
Alongside job loss and a decrease in personal earnings comes losses in opportunity. People’s ability to reinvest in new creative projects is affected. After a while, it may become economically unsound to continue doing so. Whatever effect this may have on those at the top of creative industries in Ireland, for emerging creators it could be lethal. For artists living paycheck to paycheck, revenue lost to piracy could be financially devastating, leading to forced termination of careers in the arts. And the harm isn’t just on the creative side of things. In order to compensate for losses due to piracy, many providers of the arts are forced to raise their prices, impacting those who access creative material legitimately as well. As this continues, more and more of these users will turn to pirate sources or illegal downloads, which reinforces the cyclical nature of piracy. As a result, money on pirated sites, via ad revenue and subscriptions, flows away from the original content creators and toward the people who run the sites, fuelling this organised crime.
“Piracy allows indefinite quantities of people – even genuine fans – to consume content without the original creators ever knowing or benefitting.”
In addition to the financial implications of piracy, it fails to assign credit where credit is due. One of the clearest indicators emerging artists have of growing success is visibly growing popularity ― how many streams and views their content is receiving. Piracy allows indefinite quantities of people – even genuine fans – to consume content without the original creators ever knowing or benefitting. Having downloaded all my music illegally up until very recently, the hours spent listening to the music that shaped my maturity will never be reflected in any of those artists’ statistics. It’s not like they would have noticed anything if it had been; my listening, while extensive, is unlikely to amount to any notable change in any of their ratings, but it’s a matter of respect. After everything they did for me, they deserve for my contribution to be visible; to sit in silence in their statistics as a mark of their effect on the world.
In the traditional sense, piracy is defined as robbery on the high seas. There’s a reason this word is now used the way it is. Pirating content is stealing it, and however much we may want to, there’s no way it can be justified. With returns from music streaming services notoriously low, averaging, according to the Rolling Stone magazine, between $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream, live shows make up the bulk of many artist’s incomes. Because quarantine has cancelled gigs, shows, tours, publicity events, screenings and film shootings, artists in every field are struggling financially even without the additional burden of having their work stolen.
In the grand scheme of things, one could argue that streaming a Disney movie with a multi-million dollar profit like Ratatouille is probably not harmful to its original creators. Be that as it may, we must be sensitive to the consequences of illegal streaming, especially with regard to independent or lesser-known creators. Be it due to convenience, cost, or sheer lockdown-induced boredom, piracy in all its forms is likely to persist. Next time we pirate media, we must ask ourselves: is piracy morally acceptable simply because it’s normalized? Remy deserves credit for his dish. Let that be a lesson for us all.