Pirate Braying

by Bill Gibron

5 April 2012

This is not a defense of your average Joe Sixpack sparking up his BitTorrent software and treating the family to a night at the (free) movies. Instead, we are talking about how to accommodate professionals without turning them into criminals.

Back when Napster was a big deal (when Lars Ulrich and the rest of the still rich musical biz were calling it the digital devil incarnate), an argument - among many - was made amongst ‘file sharers’ (read: pirates) regarding their desire to download millions upon millions of mp3s. While price fixing and ‘sticking it to the man’ was the veiled rallying cry, the real reason was rather obvious - availability. Way back in the days before ITunes and Rhapsody, in the zygote like stage of the transition from bricks and mortar to material rich sites, labels would frequently let albums and artists go out of print. Makes perfect sense under the old business model, especially when you consider that record stores would return product they couldn’t push…or, even better, subject it to the dreaded “cut out bin.”

In the eyes of the P-n-P proponent, the lack of certain titles at their local music hang-out justified the dialing up of their Internet connection and the ‘borrowing’ of necessary tunes from their fellow audiophile. Granted, a lot of said trading dealt directly with product still bountiful on store shelves, but if you were looking for The Right to Be Italian by Holly and the Italians or Distinguishing Marks by Fingerprintz, you were out of luck. Even worse, with no legitimate outlet for such niche artists, corporate was more than happy to ignore demand and continue to work from the supply side of the situation. In fact, those in favor of what we now call ‘piracy’ point to the fact that such actions reconfigured the music industry for the better and are done with any further discussion.
Now, the same could be said for cinema. Indeed, the average home theater collection is usually limited to the most recent hits and a few classic gems. Rare is the individual who has thousands of titles in the catalog and then makes sure said library is filled with films that, over the decades, have been considered essential. Now transfer this fact over to the fledgling film critic, the online blogger or unpaid staffer who is struggling to fill his weekly quota of news, reviews, and sidelines. While obviously able to gain more access than the average aficionado, location and legitimacy can severely limit one’s options. Newbies need content in order to prove to the PR people they are worthy of attending those otherwise off limit press screenings, and studios don’t usually offer up their latest releases to someone without a certain set of credentials.

All of this ties into the current debate raging online among film fanatics, professional journalists, social networking pundits, and the members of the working media. In a piece for Indiewire, Mike D’Angelo makes a case FOR piracy, arguing that the current set up - online retail, streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, specialized distribution - is still too restrictive, especially when it comes to a vanity label like Criterion. In his article, the writer laments the lack of availability for the recent HD edition of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. Wanting to SEE the film and not necessarily OWN it, Mr. D’Angelo points to the lack of options, his personal need, and perhaps most importantly, his professional opinion for how technology and market continue to muck up the situation. In essence, his argument implies that occupation trumps the law, or at the very least, the legality of filesharing.

It’s not a new take on the subject. Ever since torrents became the standard opening day diversion, the clash between copyright and comfort zone has been raging. Reality often steps in to quell the discourse (we are still talking about a criminal act here) but then personal opinion and that most specious of special considerations - ethics - wander over to mess things up. In essence, those against piracy make the very valid and very legitimate point that stealing is stealing. A filmmaker makes a film, releases it to the general public, and then waits to be reimbursed/compensated for his or her time. It’s the way with all art. Yet in the realm of 2012 technology, you can usually bypass the middle man and make your own viewership decision. Yes, for something just out in theaters the versions are usually crappy camcorder prints, but every once in a while, a legitimate screener comes along that allows you to see a current title in determined digital glory.

Before going any further, we have to define some parameters. Few can really champion the implied concept of entitlement flowing through the basics of the argument. Audiences are not entitled to see whatever they want whenever they want, just as listeners are not entitled to hear whatever they want whenever. While the current set-up does favor such an eventuality, without the final format, one must tolerate what technology can offer. So if you can watch every episode of Family Guy but can’t come across a copy of an old Kurosawa title, so be it. On the other side of the sentiment is the notion of selective promotion. It may only apply to film critics and other journalists in general, but the implications within it are far reaching to the discussion herein.

For example, yours truly lives in Tampa, Florida. Not the most booming metropolis on the map, but by many marketing standards, we are 13th in the United States. The weird thing is that Orlando is listed as 19th and Miami creeps in at 16th. This means that, among the minds of those in the business of public relations, we should rank higher than those other well known areas. Yet for some reason, we are treated like third class citizens when it comes to film. Indeed, Orlando and Miami will get many new releases (and as a result, screenings of same) before they will even consider opening it on the West Coast. Sometimes, the State is considered by these two cities only. So if a critic living in Tampa wants to see something that otherwise will not be offered to his journalistic membership, he or she has one option - travel the 75 miles to Orlando or the 270-plus to South Beach.

Or…they could look for a bootleg copy of the film online. Granted, it’s not the most professional or principled option, but it is a quasi-pragmatic one. With editors screaming and deadlines looming (and performance almost always based on readership, popularity, and trends), a day long drive is probably not the answer. Similarly, every local critic has discovered the deaf ears owned by the prestigious PR firms. Some even go so far as to remind you of your unimportance when you query about an upcoming release (“You’re in Tampa…too bad…”). So while it violates everything the standards state, the lure of online piracy provides a pathway out of such a situation. In fact, it is often the only way to stay competitive within a marginalized market (for the record, this is not something yours truly does or condones).

Of course, that doesn’t make the act defensible. As a matter of fact, the idea that a paid professional would have to look elsewhere to procure the items he or she needs to do their job seems antithetical to the whole approach. Film festivals often employ online means of making their movies available to journalists and Oscar season has started to experiment with such a system. Disney even designed a protected process (now defunct) which tied their previews to a device installed in the critic’s home. In fact, with the way in which technology is moving, the problem will be solved before the debate is truly over. Remember - this is not a defense of your average Joe Sixpack sparking up his BitTorrent software and treating the family to a night at the (free) movies. Instead, we are talking about how to accommodate professionals without turning them into criminals. Mr. D’Angelo may indeed have a point. However, to parse it out into a public mandate is beyond foolish.   

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