Film piracy is one of the most popular methods of gaining access to films and TV shows online but it is also frowned upon by many, especially industry officials who have been claiming for years that piracy signifies the end of cinema production as we know it. Is piracy really as apocalyptic as these business executives make it out to be or are there some merits to the entire process which has become a cultural phenomenon?
With the improvement of the internet over the years, piracy obviously hasn’t just been restricted to the film industry. In fact, most of the kids who grew up during the ’90s were probably introduced to piracy when they logged onto their parents’ clunky desktop computers to download their favourite songs along with a bunch of viruses.
Peer-to-peer file-sharing tools became a revolutionary way of downloading your favourite media and they have only gotten faster with time, with many even downloading massive video game files via pirate websites at unbelievably fast speeds. As such, governments around the world have imposed strict measures on these websites but modern internet users have VPNs to bypass those restrictions.
Of course, the threat of film piracy can be traced back to the beginning of the art form itself but it meant something different back then. Due to the more fluid forms of distribution at the beginning of the 20th century, many pirates actually tried to pass off somebody else’s artistic endeavours as their own and there was no way to tell otherwise.
This violation of intellectual property rights actually urged those early pioneering filmmakers to use special logos which could pass for visual signatures, certifications embedded by the original author. Even in the age of online streaming, similar logos are found in the screeners released by production companies as a form of anti-piracy measure.
The most common critique of piracy is the accusation that it is damaging the film industry and bleeding it for billions of dollars, hurting the jobs of real people. While the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) conducted a dubious study (they admitted they had inflated figures) back in 2005, more transparent reports predicted significant losses to the industry in the years that followed.
However, as we have clearly observed, the dominant model for experiencing films has completely changed. To a large extent, most of the streaming services that are available to the modern consumer have reasonably subscription rates which is why the customer bases for these services have increased by a significant margin.
As a result, many of the more popular productions of today are accessed by most people through these legal methods and the ones who can’t afford the subscriptions or just don’t want to pay for films end up going to the illegal streaming sites. The latter is what bothers studios and artists, with some claiming that artists will have no incentive to produce content in the future.
Gareth Neame, a producer for Downtown Abbey, said in a 2014 interview with The Guardian: “Long term, movies and TV and other content simply won’t be created in the first place. One may think an individual act of piracy doesn’t matter, but if that becomes a way of life then the value of intellectual property becomes eroded, shows like Downton Abbey won’t get made.”
Time has shown that it wasn’t the case at all, piracy has continued to gain traction and endless iterations of shows exactly like Downton Abbey are produced each year which has made many of us wish for Neame’s predictions to come true. However, film piracy isn’t important because people want to watch the latest Marvel film online for free. There’s a very different and much more important aspect to it.
These piracy websites house active download links for some of the most obscure and important films ever made, films whose physical copies are no longer in circulation at all. The archives of these sites are much more impressive than any streaming service in existence, featuring experimental shorts which are hardly available anywhere else and are often the only resources available for students and cinephiles.
More importantly, film piracy has played an incredible role in spreading awareness about cinematic traditions all around the world. In many of these countries which lack the distribution networks of western societies, people are being properly introduced to film culture solely because of these piracy tools which are almost indispensable to them.
In fact, it is because of the exposure piracy websites have provided on a global scale that the internet age’s new wave in filmmaking is imminent. While other organisations like Criterion have actively worked to restore classics and preserve them for the future, most of them only operate in North America and Europe. For the rest of the world, piracy is all we have.
The industry officials and streaming service executives who are preaching about ethical use have only one objective in mind: maximising revenue. On the other hand, the people who upload these rare gems on piracy websites are only doing so in order to ensure that others have access to important masterpieces for free and that these films are preserved for future generations to see in the most effective way possible.
Physical media is inevitably impermanent and even the most well-stocked film archives of today have physical copies which have to be handled very carefully. In light of that, digitising and uploading films whose directors are long dead and whose intellectual rights are owned by studios acts as the best form of film preservation and video archival that we have at our disposal today.
Even filmmakers who are currently living have spoken out in favour of film piracy, pointing out its cultural importance. Werner Herzog famously said: “Piracy has been the most successful form of distribution worldwide. If you don’t get [films] through Netflix or state-sponsored television in your country, then you go and access it as a pirate. I don’t like it because I would like to earn some money with my films. But if someone like you steals my films through the internet or whatever, fine, you have my blessing.”
This is why film piracy is an essential part of protecting the history of the cinematic art form. Without it, most of us would be forced to consume the algorithmic output of manufactured productions that are constantly fed to us every five seconds in the form of app notifications.