Monday, August 3, 2009

The Perils of Piracy

In the July issue of Sight and Sound, Nick Roddick writes; '...there is a whole generation who remain unconvinced that downloading commercially produced movies and music remains less serious than, say, scrumping apples in a more innocent age.' While this was probably intended as a humorous comparison, Roddick goes on to let us know that in the Victorian Age children were jailed for scrumping apples. Would children also be jailed for tearing pages from the serialized copies of Charles Dicken's novels until they accumulate the entire manuscript for free? Of course they would have, and that is a more accurate-- albeit more haphazard-- comparison for downloading movies. 
Nick Roddick would agree that downloading movies is problematic to say the least and that steps taken to persecute individuals doing the downloading need to be re-organized. But he does not get at why downloading movies could be considered a sin in the first place. Just as it would be a sin-- a violation of media form, let's call it-- to put together torn pages of Dicken's books and do what you would with the full manuscript, it is a violation of media form to even watch movies on a computer, with your mouse jutting in to the picture at the slightest movement, the space bar pausing the film to allow for the pizza to be ordered, Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson's merging faces interrupted by an Instant Message. The creators would never have wanted to see their work this way, and your eyes are being robbed to boot. If one saw the pictures on a big screen in a darkened room, only then are they achieving the full experience of the film, even if they don't know it. 
As is obvious, the comparisons to Dickens have ended. Very well, and all the more reason to regard films as a unique 20th century media form reliant on very specific technology. But these are all abstract arguments, I know, and they won't persuade the majority of people downloading movies. So here is a more practical argument: downloading movies hurts small production companies and distributors. A major company such as Dreamworks can afford to lose some money off of the illegal downloads of Tropic Thunder, but the executives at Gigantic Pictures might tremble is they heard of even a handful of illegal downloads of Goodbye Solo. There are always people who will still see the movies in a theater, and those who will buy it on DVD, but we can't draw such clear lines. What if someone sees it in a theater and then goes home and downloads it? What if someone buys the DVD, rips the movie from it, and puts it online? The world of film-watching has become a dismayingly double-crossing place.
Most people would still say that sending someone to jail for a few illegal downloads is too much, and I would agree. I would fully stand behind an initiative to cut down admission prices to theaters, and I would see nothing wrong with a movie being downloaded with the consent, or express wish, of the filmmaker. But I have no qualms with a fine, or a series of fines that increase with each illegal download. As of now, Great Britain is using the ultimatum that users access to the internet will be cut off if they continue downloading movies for twelve months after they have been asked to stop. France tried enacting a similar plan, though it was recently voted unconstitutional. The legitimacy and effectiveness of these plans is debatable; should we simply leave the policy up to the companies? For now, I stand with the small distributors, their small films and their struggling filmmakers who deserve to make their cents worth from what they spent months toiling on. Although I stand against every bad movie that a company like Dreamworks puts out each year, by the same logic, I stand with them on this issue too.