Benefits of piracy

I was teaching a class on Isaac Asimov recently and wanted to show a clip from the movie I, Robot. It’s not out on DVD yet. But a helpful student, whom I’ll call Jonas (because that isn’t his name), offered me a copy, pirated from the Internet.

The practice is widespread on United States campuses.
The actual downloading is both easy and difficult. Easy because it just means going to a peer-to-peer website, such as, and using its “bit torrent’’ program.

The difficult part is that you’ll need a high-speed connection. Even so, it will take an hour or so for a low-grade “theatre rip’’ (a copy taken clandestinely in an auditorium) and twice as long for a copy lifted from a “screening version’’ of the film (pre-released for review, or to privileged insiders).

The site carries a prim warning: “You may not use this service to obtain or distribute software or any other copyrighted material that you do not have the right to. Any violators must leave this site immediately. This site is meant for educational purposes only.’’ I can’t see much educational purpose in a download of I Piss on Your Corpse, I Spit on Your Grave (a gore-flick on P2P offer from “Sickboy’‘). But spoilsports might say the same of I, Robot.

Student consciences are clear. “They can afford it’’ is a common justification. Why worry about expropriating a few dollars from an industry that gives former Walt Disney president Michael Ovitz a $140-million payoff? The Robin Hood defence has, of course, never gone down well with the courts.

More persuasive is the “time is money’’ line. Students, Jonas argues, apply a calculus. A DVD costs $22 to buy and $4 to rent. But renting means two return trips that eat into out-of-class time. If you are paying $30 000 a year for your education, you budget hours as carefully as dollars.

American students (unlike most adults) inhabit an environment that is continuously online. Downloading means simply hitting the keyboard then going off to do something useful. Like homework.

A frequently heard justification is that downloading permits sampling before buying. It’s a kind of test drive. It doesn’t threaten the store-bought product: it advertises the “raw’’ movie to the discriminating consumer.

The most sophisticated line of defence is that campus piracy drives technological progress. “If it hadn’t been for Napster,’’ students ask, “do you think we’d have iPod, or WalMart selling CDs for $10?’‘

Jonas argues that far from destroying the film industry, movie downloading has made it raise its game, exploit its visual advantages, and lower its prices. There are multiplex, mammoth-screen, stadium-seating cinemas going up in every city centre and mall. Box-office is at record levels.

Historically, cinema has always been propelled by outlawry. The reason Hollywood is where it is, rather than in New York, is because out in the far west, pioneer moviemakers were beyond the reach of Thomas Edison and his strangling motion-picture camera patents. In California the studios (like today’s students) could violate the law with impunity. Had the industry remained in New York, we’d still be in the kinematograph era: law-abiding and backward.

The authorities seem, tacitly, to agree with this analysis. The Motion Picture Association of America (which reckons piracy costs it $3,5-billion a year) directs its wrath at bootleg factories in China and the Philippines. Campus downloaders get little attention. The local police piracy squad has never raided Jonas’s college.

The college itself turns a blind(ish) eye to the practice. Students caught using the institutional server are reprimanded and required to read copyright law and take a quiz on the subject (Jonas is very knowledgeable).

Fines or expulsion haven’t happened, nor do they seem likely.

A revolution is happening in the film industry. Behind every revolution lies crime. Until after the revolution, that is, when crime is redefined as the people’s hammer blow for freedom. Forward with the student downloaders, say I. And thanks, Jonas, for the loan. — Â

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