Is Piracy Why We Can’t Have Nice Things?

downloadingisstealingcampaign-642-380Last week,  Hannibal producer Martha De Laurentis lamented in a blog post about how piracy led to her show’s cancellation. In her write-up, she specifically remarks on how “nearly one-third of the audience for ‘Hannibal’ is coming from pirated sites – despite the fact that a legitimate download for each episode was available the following day.” Reading the statement at face value, this appears to be a major issue that needs fixing. It seems absurd that the 5th most pirated show on the internet would receive ratings so low that it warrants cancellation.

And before I begin debunking this argument, let’s be clear: piracy DOES often affect a film or television show’s bottom line. Given that the arts are still usually funded by corporations and studios which create entertainment to turn a profit, we need to be aware that we’re essentially voting for our favorite media with our wallets. If you love something and you’re downloading it with no intention of ever paying for a legitimate version, then you are working against your best interest.

But frankly, this sort of over-simplified rhetoric is why hardcore anti-piracy advocates in the movie and music industry are so often mocked and ignored. The suggestion that every single illegal download of a piece of media was taken by somebody who either has not (and will not) pay for a legitimate copy, or would support it if piracy did not exist, is horribly flawed and ridiculous to most people who consume media in the 21st century.

Let’s step back for a moment. De Laurentis states that a legitimate copy of Hannibal was available for download the next day. This is sort of true; if you use iTunes, you can download individual episodes in HD for $3 each, or get a full season for $30-40. But since most people would prefer to watch TV shows for the first time via a subscription service rather than pay outright for ownership of something they haven’t seen, let’s look at those options first.

Many people are dropping cable altogether because the pricing is just too high. Just to have a basic cable subscription in more than 1 room, with DVR functionality (a MUST in today’s overcrowded TV environment), often costs at least $60/month on its own. That’s absurd, and a big part of the reason why so many people would rather pay $8-12 for Hulu Plus. It’s got almost all network TV shows at a much more reasonable price.

The keyword there is “almost.” Due to an exclusivity deal with Amazon Prime, the final season of Hannibal was not on Hulu, despite Hulu being co-owned by NBC, the network on which the show ran. That’s disappointing on its own, but let’s say that you subscribe to both anyway. You’re STILL out of luck, because Amazon Prime did not offer the new season’s content to its subscribers. To this day, Amazon only offers the third season of Hannibal as a paid purchase, like iTunes and Google Play.

The episodes were available to stream on, but even there they required a cable log-in, so it’s a moot point. The fact of the matter is, there were really only two ways to watch Hannibal legitimately: either having a cable subscription, or paying $3 per episode (or $30 per season) for the show. In addition to this being convoluted to cord-cutters, it’s also a shitty choice.

We already talked about the outrageous cost of cable, so let’s discuss electronic media “ownership.” First of all, at $30-40 per program, for an enthusiast, those costs add up very fast. Say you watch 20 different programs a year, a number that’s relatively conservative in today’s absurdly great TV landscape. If you were to pay for each of those seasons individually at an average of $35/year, they would cost you $700. That’s almost as much as an annual cable subscription.

There’s also the fact that you don’t truly “own” the entertainment that you purchase digitally. I’ve written about this at-length before, but the dubious nature of legitimate TV/movie ownership is cause for concern. Of the three major services that allow you to “own” digital media (iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon), only iTunes lets you download media to your hard drive. Even with iTunes, the media is DRM encrypted, meaning that you can only watch the show that you supposedly own through Apple’s own store. Not only is iTunes one of the shittiest pieces of software I’ve ever had the displeasure of using, it also disallows the sharing of media to any devices not created and marketed by Apple. If you don’t have an Apple TV, you’re stuck watching on a computer, an iPhone, or an iPad.

Google Play and Amazon are almost as bad, because they don’t allow users to download their content at all. While streaming can be convenient, your personally-owned digital media should not only be available to you if you have an internet connection. It’s especially infuriating if you’re paying for the HD version of a show, because if you OR Amazon/Google are having connection issues, then you’re not getting the visual quality you’ve already paid for.

Personally, I would rather support a show I watched (legally, if at all reasonably possible) by purchasing the season on blu-ray after the fact. This makes the purchase of a digital season even more absurd, because it suggests that I should purchase the series twice at full price: once just to stay current, and once in the format that I actually want to own.

But fine, let’s just push aside the absurd cost of keeping current with a TV show that’s not available on Hulu at the moment. Let’s just accept that we should give up on media ownership and pay exorbitant amounts for our shows. Even if you believe that, and that fans who turn to piracy should just suck it up or miss out on the shows that they love, there’s a HUGE number of fans that Martha De Laurentis and other hard-line anti-piracy advocates are ignoring: the international audience.

It’s difficult to find any accurate statistics online regarding piracy, as most reports are paid for by media companies and exist primarily to prove to people how hurtful piracy is. However, it’s generally accepted that the US doesn’t come anywhere near the top 10 when it comes to estimated “losses” in pirated downloads. This is largely because much of the entertainment that is created in America is not licensed in foreign markets. Because fans of various entertainments in these countries don’t have any options to see their shows ASIDE from piracy, they do it FAR more often.

So let’s return to De Laurentis’ statistics for Hannibal. She said that roughly “one-third” of the audience pirated the show. I don’t have a breakdown of Hannibal’s piracy handy, but here are some statistics on illegally downloaded episodes of Game of Thrones, the most pirated show on television, during it’s most recent season. Out of 7 million illegal downloads, 464,402 came from America. That’s only 6.7%, if you round up. So if Hannibal’s international breakdown is similar, it means that over 90% of those who pirated the show had no legal option whatsoever to see it. Piracy was their only option.

This is the root of why many “piracy killed my art!” are inaccurate: there’s simply no way of knowing how many internet pirates would have chosen to or been able to consume media in a “legitimate” manner if piracy were not an option. In some cases, the answer is probably “very few.” Take, for instance, Charlie Kaufman’s recent complaints on the WTF podcast that online piracy was killing Anomalisa. I’m a big fan of Anomalisa (as I am with Hannibal), but Kaufman is vastly overestimating the number of people who actually had  a viable option to watch Anomalisa at the time of that podcast’s recording. Until this weekend, Anomalisa’s widest release was 169 theaters nationwide. If you don’t live in New York or LA, odds are that you were unable to see that film in any theater. It’s possible that a significant number of the illegal downloaders were Kickstarter backers who just wanted to see the movie that they had already pledged $20+ to get made.

Still, one could argue that people should just sit tight and watch whatever is made available to them, when it is made available. In the case of Anomalisa, it can suck to have to wait to see a project that you made happen, but the film was released digitally this weekend, making the wait time from limited release to home video a very manageable 2 months (this window of time was not available to the downloaders in January, however). Hannibal’s international audience is in a more difficult place, since Hannibal will likely never reach them in a legitimate manner, but before internet piracy, this was just the way of the world. If art or entertainment wasn’t available in your region, you simply went about your life never knowing or caring about it.

The internet has changed the way that we interact with art, though. Instead of just talking with friends and enthusiasts in our areas, we read all about upcoming releases online and share our opinions in message boards and comment sections. By not having a way to see the next big thing, people are missing out on the best time to discuss and digest their favorite entertainment. By the time something sees release in a foreign country, if it’s released at all, the conversation online is already dead. In these cases, piracy actually helps foster a more diverse, international critical audience.

I’m still not championing piracy. If enough people steal media rather than consume it through a legitimate channel, it truly can have an impact on the success of great works. But piracy is nowhere near as significant a factor in a show or film’s failure as many would lead you to believe, nor is it impossible to counter. Studios should look at massive international piracy numbers as a reflection of their own distribution failings. In our global critical community, art and entertainment needs to be ubiquitous. Instead of looking at illegal downloads as lost sales, studios should see the pirates as potential customers, fans who might be interested in purchasing their content if only it were available to them.

6 thoughts on “Is Piracy Why We Can’t Have Nice Things?

  1. I love this quote that kind of echos what you’re saying:

    “In general, we think there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem. For example, if a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24 x 7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the U.S. release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable. Most DRM solutions diminish the value of the product by either directly restricting a customers use or by creating uncertainty.”

    -Gabe Newell

    Look at how easy it is to get games on PC now. They’re dirt cheap and its accessible. DRM can be workable to the consumer as long as its flexible enough for the end user.

    1. Agreed. It’s one thing if people are pirating things just because they’d rather not pay for them, but when it’s because there’s no alternative or the alternative is far less functional than the pirated version, the fault lies with the distributors. These anti-piracy arguments almost always state how easily-accessible their media is in a legitimate fashion, but they rarely actually are.

  2. Still…if you can’t get paid or supported you won’t make the art so it can discourage the creative side of things. Surely access, the control of it and the cost of it is a factor but I would submit in the case of Hannibal and even Anamolisa that there is a lot of content and competition running through all these ways of accessing and enjoying the art and often their audience is experiencing content overload and if you make it hard to get to or expensive on top of that they just won’t tune in. How’s that for an argument chasing its own tail? Still, I emphasize with the artist who sees their art (and the time and effort to make it) sucked up and discarded for free.

    1. Yeah, definitely. If Anomalies is hurting because of piracy, then that’s a problem. But I do think companies frequently misinterpret or misrepresent illegal download data and what that means to their bottom line.

  3. In the age of Patreon/Kickstarter, I think we are quickly barreling towards a society that “pays what you want” for all digital entertainment. Fans of the art I believe primarily donate to these campaigns because they understand that their contribution can keep the art alive. When you buy a $60 video game or a $25 blu-ray at Walmart it’s pretty hard to imagine how even one cent of that purchase makes its way to someone who needs that money to continue making their art. Instead you’re imagining that any profit on this title is being generously or wholly skimmed off by a greedy producer or even just Walmart. People are willing to pay, but as you’ve indicated sometimes they just physically can’t, and when they can, they are not interested in paying overhead for an inferior version of the product riddled with DRM. They want to fund art and the artists. And the only thing seen as sucking the art dry is “the system” that controls how commercial art is made.

    1. That’s a good point, and it starts to question who defines the value of media. Previously distributors had full control of that, but it’s starting to change. Given how intangible entertainment value us, though, I can see how that might be unfair in a purely consumer driven model. After all, a blu ray is physically only worth about $1, but the costs of making a blockbuster movie are incredibly high, and there’s no way to directly pass that cost on directly to the consumer. What customers think is “fair” could be an unsustainable price point.

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