You are here

Considering Piracy as More than Just a Criminal Activity

It’s too early, too chilly, and too foggy for words – but regardless, the second day of the ‘Doing Global Media Studies’ pre-conference to ECREA 2010 is about to begin. The keynote speaker this morning is Tristan Mattelart, whose focus is on audiovisual piracy - and he begins by noting the substantial attention already paid to this phenomenon, though mainly as a for of 'criminal' activity. He notes that there is a difference between Internet piracy and physical piracy (the sale of counterfeit DVDs and CDs), and that there are differences in such piracy between different countries.

We already know the legal economy of communication in southern and eastern countries pretty well – but that’s less true for the informal economy of communication, which is nonetheless an important aspect of these overall economies. This informal economy plays a central role in the circulation of media and cultural products, in fact – and what Tristan means by ‘southern and eastern countries’ are countries as far afield as Tunisia, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, and others.

Sadly, the existing literature on the subject of piracy in southern and eastern countries is voluminous, but very narrow in coverage. It is formed mainly of self-interested reports by copyright industries (MPAA, IFPI, BSA, IIPA), and contains alarmist analysis of the dangers which piracy poses to the movie, music, and software industries. What such reports contain are figures on the calculated ‘losses’ to the industry due to pirated content; many southern and eastern countries especially appear as zones of maximum instability for the industry.

Interestingly, these reports contain some very detailed statistics on piracy, which is immediately suspicious – by its very nature, piracy should be very hard to measure. The loss statistics are also untrustworthy in that they assume that any pirated content sale, at discount price, equates to a lost legitimate sale, at a much higher premium price. Also, while there are detailed stats on pirate sales, these very same industries systematically refuse to provide detailed official statistics on commercial sales. These reports contain a set of very dodgy figures, in other words – and they don’t aim to provide reliable knowledge, of course, but simply to provide the material to persuade governments and international trade organisations to sharpen anti-piracy legislation.

The industry rhetoric also fails to make any distinction between commercially organised piracy and non-commercial activities that are aimed at sharing content. Piracy is portrayed as an organised crime, and more recently has also been claimed to help finance international terrorism (especially in a 2009 report by the Rand Corporation), based on very spurious evidence. Fighting piracy thus becomes ‘a matter of national security’.

Addressing such confusion, misinformation, and outright lies requires a break with the portrayal of piracy as criminal activity, but this is difficult – the distributed networks through which piracy operates remain substantially understudied. There was some good early work about pre-Internet video (i.e. VHS) piracy, which stressed the importance of informal networks in the spread of video technologies in southern and eastern countries; these networks helped these societies overcome existing hindrances to media circulation. Pirated content enabled people to gain easy, cheap, and accelerated access to the products of the transnational entertainment culture, in the process circumventing state communication monopolies.

This was noted for example in the democratic transformations of eastern European societies in the late 80s and early 90s, where video piracy allowed alternative worldviews to circulate, and is also important in the continuing ideological struggles in Iran, for example. In Tunisia and Algeria, satellite piracy enables viewers to bypass the state monopoly on television, too.

The move to digital piracy presents an even greater challenge – former MPAA president Jack Valenti called digital technologies “a marketing dream and an anti-piracy nightmare”, for example. Additionally, the economic transformations in Russia, China, and other countries since the early 90s have amplified piracy due to these countries’ lax approaches to copyright enforcement. Indeed, by the content industries, these countries continue to be regarded as part of a ‘red menace’ of anti-commercial activity.

Pirate networks exchanging counterfeit goods are seen by some as ‘the dark side of globalisation’ – however, we could also see them as a form of alternative globalisation, enabling the excluded and disenfranchised to partake of global cultural exchange. Piracy is a subversive strategy for accessing global entertainment industry content, at a reasonable price and simultaneously with other, more legitimate users.

Physical piracy (exchanging counterfeit CDs and DVDs) remains important due to the lack of high-speed Internet access in many southern and eastern nations – but as broadband spreads, Internet piracy is becoming more important. So, different national and infranational contexts must be considered when analysing piracy phenomena.

Additionally, we must move beyond trivialising piracy as merely a criminal activity. Piracy connects African populations to the globalised world, for example – as a kind of ‘globalisation from below’ –, but at the same time also emphasises their marginalisation (especially while the blunt rhetoric about ‘criminal’ or even ‘terrorist’ activity continues to dominate, but also simply because of the often poor quality of pirated products). Any romanticisation of piracy as a clever tactical approach to overcoming disadvantage would be misplaced, therefore.

The purported negative consequences of piracy for the mainstream US content industries have been much publicised, but this, too, misses the mark – rather, audiovisual piracy reinforces the hegemony of western content over southern and eastern culture; domestic content industries in these countries continue to be drowned out by the influx of mainstream western content. This is a much more real issue than the illusionary commercial ‘losses’ claimed by MPAA, IFPI, and BSA.

Further, southern and eastern nations also suffer from trade sanctions imposed by the west in response to piracy – sanctions which the content industries have very successfully lobbied to be included in various multinational and bilateral trade agreements (TRIPS, which is already in place; the nebulous ACTA treaty; and various FTAs, etc.). Such agreements are highly repressive and have clear negative effects for southern and eastern nations.

However, this informal economy of communication which distributes pirate products is not an exclusive domain of southern and eastern nations, of course. Rather, in western nations, it is especially visible within the diasporic communities in the west that maintain strong ties into their countries of origin. This also adds to our challenges in doing global media studies, which really need to take into account both ‘legal’ and ‘pirate’ media flows. We also need to ensure that we consider the long history of media internationalisation processes – piracy, of course, didn’t start with the arrival of digital technologies. Digital technology might act as a rupture – but there are also important continuities which extend across that rupture.

And clearly, there is a need to de-westernise media studies especially in this context, as well as to consider various local, national, and transnational levels from interdisciplinary perspectives: including media, communication, cultural, sociological, political, legal, and other approaches.