Even Kabali is wrong on this one: Why online piracy isn't all that bad

Beyond all the drama and rhetoric, here is some contrarian thought.
Even Kabali is wrong on this one: Why online piracy isn't all that bad
Even Kabali is wrong on this one: Why online piracy isn't all that bad
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As if he wasn’t going to make enough money anyway, the producer of Kabali, Kalaipuli S. Thanu, went to court recently to seek a direction that no illegal movie download sites must distribute any leaked copy of Kabali. The futility of the court order was evident soon enough, with reports that the movie could been have leaked on the dark web. (What is Dark Web? Read here.)

And it isn’t just Kabali’s producer. The entire film industry has been raving and ranting about film piracy for years now, even as they laughed all the way to their banks.

Beyond all the drama and rhetoric, here is some contrarian thought.

For years now, folks at the Alternative Law Forum in Bengaluru have been trying to convince the film and music industry, among others, that piracy isn’t as economically destructive as it is perceived and it might not even really be the problem. A hint for our friends from Kerala and Tamil Nadu who wear socialism as a badge with pride, their argument runs on the same lines as yours.

The argument against piracy is couched in the virtues of private intellectual property, the idea that the creations of the minds - like literature, art, design and inventions - are the property of the persons who used their minds to create, and that they have exclusive rights over it.

Lawrence Liang, legal researcher, lawyer and one of the founders of ALF, says, “It is terrorism of the minds that actually sustains concepts like intellectual property. It is terrorism that’s grounded on an idea of a brutal repression of that which is actually possible.” He explains that the notion we have today about piracy is actually the "bare naked idea of sovereignty, authority and power linked to the service of property". An idea cannot be locked in by law, it is mean to roam free educating minds.

Deeptha Rao of ALF says that the core issue revolving around piracy is the lack of access.

Piracy is often the only way that information or content is available to people who cannot afford it, or do not have access to it because the distribution of the information or content is restrictive.

That those who cannot afford to watch a movie at a Cineplex for a ticket-cost of Rs. 500 will buy a pirated DVD for Rs. 25 is understandable. But then why do people who can afford 5mb internet connections download movies for free illegally?

It is because of market failure. When a product which can be more freely available is necessarily kept inaccessible or difficult to access, then the consumer will look to other options, including the black-market. And the rampancy of piracy shows that the film producers and distributors have failed in distributing the content in a manner which is the easiest and most cost-effective for the consumer.

Country-specific restrictions are the reason behind say the massive illegal downloads of the Game of Thrones in India. In 2014, when the founder of The Pirate Bay was arrested, Hollywood director Lexi Alexander had said that piracy is necessary because of country content restrictions, and that while the wealth piracy begets for the pirates isn’t right, the freedom of access to content is.

It is also fashionable for actors and directors to cook up astronomical figures of notional losses due to piracy. Liang and others have questioned that too. “These statistics often rely on certain dubious economic assumptions. The main one, of course, is the assumption that a person buying an illegal copy would necessarily buy a legal copy of the same if piracy did not exist,” write Liang, Atrayee Mazmdar and Mayur Suresh. They add, “Furthermore, piracy often acts in underdeveloped markets as the most efficient manner of creating a market or user base and also to create a lock-in period for the product,” which means that piracy could actually help create a market for a product where the ‘legal’ distribution channels have not reached yet.

Alexander too makes a similar point. “You know what statistics are bullshit? The ones stated by the MPAA about losses due to piracy,” Guardian reports her as having said. “Piracy has NOT been proven to hurt box-office numbers - on the contrary, several studies say it may have boosted the bottom line.”

In a research paper titled “Media piracy in Emerging Economies”, the authors make several important points.

First, it is argued that piracy is not a crime but a pricing problem. Piracy is rampant because the conditions of high price of content, low incomes and cheap digital technologies are also rampant. It is reiterated here that understanding the lack of access is imperative to understanding piracy. (There is an exhaustive chapter in the same publication on piracy and India which you might want to read.)

Even on the face of these facts – that piracy happens because of lack of access, and that the astronomical financial losses quoted are only notional – there has only been rhetorical demands for stricter law-enforcement against content pirates.

It is either ignorance or hypocrisy, and certainly ironic, that for all the communist romanticism that we see in Indian cinema, they don’t see the faults in their own business models.

I can’t think of any Rajini fan who would want to watch a shabby online print of Kabali and give the theatre experience a miss, even if it costs a lot of money. If people are downloading and watching the movie after the release, then it is because the producers and distributors of the movie failed to match the demand.

Special thanks to Smarika Kumar and Deeptha Rao at ALF. A version of this article was previously published here.

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