In 2015, one in five people downloaded a film illegally. Piracy, however, is not a recent development. In fact, it’s about as old as cinema itself.  During the medium’s roaring 1920’s Golden Age,  enterprising hustlers would strike illegal “dupe” film prints from official negatives and exhibit it for the paying public without permission of the studio.  60 years hence,  VHS copies of E.T. were cast in green plastic, a material difficult enough to replicate that most pirates, who were looting thousands from bootleg video sales, gave up.  That pressing went to turn a profit of $75 million.

However, the digital age of borderless file sharing has made the problem uncontrollable  Like a captain desperately attempting to plug a hole in the Titanic, Hollywood has deployed fines, grungy adverts, and finger-wagging letters in an attempt to combat the trend.  Nothing has worked.  The internet has permanently tilted the film industry on its axis. It’s convenient, easy , and usually free.  But is there a situation where piracy is not only reasonable, but justified?  Let’s put the issue on trial.

The Prosecution

I have a weird confession. Unlike the vast majority of normal people, when I go the cinema I always stay rooted in my seat to watch the credits in full. It doesn’t even have to be a zippy Marvel movie with a mouth-watering post-credits sequence.  I’m simply fascinated by the invisible armies of technicians and artists whose unseen contributions are crucial to a film’s realisation. Their names may not boast the watertight box office lure of a Robert Downey Jr. , but each name is important, each one an irreplaceable cog in the filmmaking machine.  Consider how the expertise of 3,010 professionals was required to bring Iron Man Three to the screen.

These are the unheralded few I think about when I hear piracy dismissed as a victimless crime. I understand why this delusion has gained momentum. When Jennifer Lawrence can secure a $20 million paycheck for 80 days work on sci-fi romance Passengers, what does a few pounds of lost revenue count for? Why does Hollywood proceed to whinge about declining profits while celebrating record box office takings ($38billion in 2015)?  Is it all just a big dupe?

Let me be frank. To declare filmmakers are not inconvenienced when their work is stolen is identical to believing shopkeepers rejoice when they discover someone’s ransacked the tills.  Our mistake is to refer to the most visible faces of a film- the stars, the studio- to quantify the industry’s financial state. We seldom spare a thought for the more modestly salaried wardrobe designers or visual effects supervisors.  The movies may be an art form, but it’s also a  trade, a means to putting food on the table.  According to a 2015 Guardian article, film piracy is costing the British film industry £500 million annually. The only possible result of such a ginormous deficit is a colossal loss of jobs.  Britain’s film crews rely on a booming industry for their livelihood, and their financial futures become cloudier with every passing illegal download.  

Another thing.  A 2016 article published on the popular culture website site Den of Geek reported that over 113 remakes, reboots, and sequels were currently in production.   That’s depressing. Many factors have led to this age of the bland, far more than can be explored here, but it’s crucial to recognise the rise of piracy is partially responsible.  

For instance, there’s no dispute that Star Wars VIII will likely gross $2 billion next December.  But despite their globe-straddling  marketing campaigns, blockbusters are actually a minority.  Everything else, the smaller, riskier, self-funded indies, is slowly vanishing from our screens.  This is because as piracy undermines the financial security of the industry, investors are reluctant to support movies which do not pander to mainstream audiences (Read: No giant psychotic Autobots).  Instead, they have pooled their resources into increasingly dull Batman reboots, because these ‘pre-sold’ franchises are more likely to turn a profit in spite of piracy.  Challenging and powerful pictures like 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight will struggle to or simply do not get made.

No action exists in a vacuum. Each one has a consequence. Film pirating may not be crippling the industry, but it’s helping to deform it, into something bleak and horribly beige.  If you pirate, I implore you to reconsider.  There has only ever been one way to ensure your access to quality entertainment, and that’s to support, with real tender, the artists who spend their lives making it happen.

The Defence

Every movie, whether you watch in the cinema, buy it on DVD, or download it on Demand, has been subject to some form of censorship. In the case of the UK’s British Film Classification board, the system advises the audience about a film’s content and supposedly helps safeguard children from inappropriate imagery. In practice, this normally means that only viewers older than fifteen can see a boob in the cinema, while six-year olds can giggle unashamedly as Captain America bravely massacres a squad of helpless goons. Fair enough.  But in Asian-Pacific countries like China, the situation is starkly different. 

Under the governing Communist Party, an illegal download is often the only way Chinese citizens can access films in their intended versions.  For starters, only 34 foreign films are permitted into Chinese cinemas annually.   The Government maintain these quotas are necessary in order to ensure the country’s developing film industry isn’t overwhelmed by more polished Hollywood products, but the reality is much darker.   Any film produced or distributed in the country, fast becoming the world’s second largest film market, must religiously adhere to the regulations of the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, or SART. 

Under their rule, any criticism of the Chinese government is practically taboo. Does your film dare to suggest there is poverty in Shanghai by showing an unstated image of clothes drying on a clothesline? Then, like the producers of Mission Impossible III, you will need to amputate the offending object if you desire access to lucrative Chinese box office.  Depictions of bloody violence, depression, and homosexuality are also likely to be cut, lest any impressionable forty year olds are traumatized by a lesbian kiss.  Time travel is also a touchy subject Unlike Hollywood, China takes scientific fact very seriously.

It also oppresses the expression of Chinese filmmakers. The government has restricted their storytelling options so severely that Chinese cinema must either be mindless blockbusters or conservative propaganda.  Robert Cain, a producer who has over 25 years experience making films in China, said in an interview with film blog IndieWire “Censorship there is designed not only to protect the innocent, but even more to protect the status quo of authoritarian rule. No distinction is made between children and adults; the government holds the ultimate right to decide what content is ‘appropriate’ and therefore available for viewing, irrespective of the viewer’s age’. 

So the role of piracy is much more complex.  In a broadly free society, logging on to Putlocker is a thoughtless act.  Point. Click. Watch. No fuss, no remorse.  But in countries where free speech is muzzled like a misbehaving Greyhound, piracy is not an act of shrugging convenience, but a method of increasing political awareness, a bloody-minded two fingers up to an oppressive regime.  It has allowed China can see films which reflect their lives and not the agendas of their government.

I’m not saying it’s okay to commit a crime if the ends justify the means.  But censorship is diabolical.  And the morality of any act which undermines it deserves to be considered.

The Jury is Out….

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