On Piracy and Patronage

Just how harmful is online piracy? That’s the question put to readers by a recent New York Times piece in which both sides of this contentious issue are given their fair shake.

“The fundamental issue,” says James Burger, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property rights, “is whether or not the sky is falling and the entertainment industry is being decimated by technology.”

Such was the subject of contemplation when Congress recently considered legislation—SOPA in the House, PIPA in the Senate—that would have granted U.S. law enforcement unprecedented authority to track and fight suspected online copyright violators. With everyone from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to Google and Wikipedia involved, it seemed that no one was without a dog in the fight. Here, as ever, the basic public perception was that the MPAA et al. were simply greedy, Internet police state-wanting tyrants out for the blood of innocent, freedom-loving netizens. Indeed, Internet users everywhere felt their rights were under immediate threat. Surely, SOPA and PIPA were a legislative overreach—right?

For the absolute most part, they were. SOPA and PIPA were absurd in both their scope and aim, and their effects on free speech online would have been disastrous. But there is more to it than just this: A lot of people simply want to pirate everything they watch, listen to or read. And to many, “opposing piracy” is little more than palliative doublespeak for supporting a despotic Internet regime. This is a problem

Argumentum ad populum?

The popular narrative that to oppose piracy is to support censorship is not only a reductive fallacy; it also fails to consider the artistically damaging implications of piracy per se. Stated plainly: Piracy hurts art. It hurts it commercially and, by direct extension, innovatively. To the extent that artistic purveyors (here I refer not to artists themselves, but to the studios, labels and publishers that monetarily facilitate artistic endeavors) are unable to recoup investment costs of the works they produce, their incentive to support future works is ever lessened. This is particularly true when and wherever innovative, boundary-pushing material is involved. Most readily, this dynamic reveals itself in the creative drought that has characterized the last decade of major-studio filmmaking.

Consider that in the 12 years since 1999—the year cited by many as online piracy’s truest birth date—the highest-grossing film of each year but one has either been a sequel, a remake or a major literary adaption (Box Office Mojo). This statistic stands in stark contrast to the previous twelve years, in which only four films could be so categorized. Here, piracy’s apparent impact on Hollywood’s willingness to take risks on non-tried-and-true material is plain to see. Innovation and creativity are floundering—not because fresh ideas don’t exist, but because companies are less and less willing to bankroll them.

To lovers of film, of music, of literature, this could not paint a bleaker picture. Piracy is having a negative and directly correlative effect on entertainment culture. There’s little denying it.

Moving forward

Make no mistake: The ways and means by which people access entertainment content are changing. Whether from books to e-readers or televisions to laptops, these transitions are already well underway. On this point there is no question. Of similarly little question, though, is the fact that entertainment industries need to better adapt themselves to these shifting realities. As profit-minded purveyors, the onus lies with them to make their content easily accessible to users.

But there is another onus, lest we forget—one that rests squarely on the shoulders of those who consume media and claim to be its supporters. Here I refer to the consumers of media—the viewers, listeners and readers of the world—in whose hands rests the power to either stifle or engender future creative works. The onus is this: Pay for the works you access, or they might one day be gone.

One need not support the Orwellian breadth of a piece of legislation like SOPA to acknowledge that piracy is a problem not just for media’s producers, but for its consumers, too.

Josh Hubanks

Josh is a former student in the Communication, Culture & Technology (CCT) M.A. program at Georgetown University. A native of Seattle, Josh graduated with honors from the University of Washington in 2009. He holds a B.A. in Communication with concentrations in politics and rhetoric, and is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. At CCT, Josh is interested in studying the emerging intersection between politics, rhetoric and social media. In his spare time, he enjoys sleeping, eating and watching totally radical movies. Follow Josh on Twitter at @jhubanks