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PIRACY: A Crime in Controversy

© Hindi Cinema Blog

Cartoon: THAN12

When an anti-piracy law project was being introduced in France in 2009, police brigades took over a district in Paris that is well-known for its shops displaying heaps of pirate Indian DVDs for sale. Today it is the Protect IP Act's turn to be approved in the USA, an event that has been causing much virtual ink to be shed. Going with this sign of the times, the Hindi Cinema Blog cannot help but deeply ponder upon the issue of piracy with its different arguments and counter-arguments, which make it a profoundly complex issue that no one seems to have a current satisfactory solution to. Sadly indeed.

This post is not a sermon to those who recur to purchasing pirate products nor is it our purpose to be the devil's advocate. It is indeed unfortunate but nevertheless true that despite a wide variety in tastes and incomes, most Indian cinema viewers have unfortunately been at some point in the position of supporting piracy through one of the following actions:

- purchasing a DVD at a shop, thinking it is an original copy only to open it at home and discover it is a pirate,
- knowingly buying a pirate DVD at the local video shop
- burning a DVD for another Indian cinema enthusiast
- downloading a film from the Internet for free (some people download films from supposedly law-abiding sites only to find out they have downloaded a pirate copy, while others don't bother with piracy concerns and just want to obtain the film for free).

This is just an outline of the different situations that feed piracy. The motivations are even more numerous and I believe that this variety is so vast that it should be tackled with an equally broad and global mindset, which I think has seldom been the case. Artists, producers, distributors, sellers, consumers and governments concerned by this issue all participate in what has become quite a tug of war. 

I remember the days when there was no way of watching a film unless you paid for it. One paid to spend time in a comfy cinema hall and quench the curiosity of watching an actor or actress in a new role. One also paid to see a film that was being recommended by the media or through word-of-mouth. Many of us did not venture much farther than paying to watch our favorite actors because not doing so seemed as risky as going on a lousy and expensive blind date and being stuck with the bill at the end. ;-) 

Anyway, back in the time, cultural products were  the only products of regular consumption that an unsatisfied client could not request a refund for. This system worked until the broadband Internet era came around  and shook the industry's concept of how things should be. It will only take a small example to illustrate how different the perception of the industry was from that of the consumers:

Back in the day, a group of friends and I decided to go to the movie theater to watch a mystery film. Everything was going well until the reel started burning during the final seconds that were crucial to the ending! Needless to say, the whole audience had been waiting for the climax and was unable to watch it... Feeling quite upset, everyone sought the cinema hall manager to get a refund only to be confronted with outright refusal. The manager believed that a screening was a pay-per-view service that should not take into account whether the customer was satisfied with the product at all. The audience argued that they felt ripped off paying for a ticket without being able to watch the solution to their 90 minute mystery. After much arguing and tremendous pressure, the poor manager distributed free tickets for a new screening to all of us but made it exceedingly clear that she was losing money.  The previous anecdote attempts to serve the purpose of portraying how complex the concept of client satisfaction was and still seems to be in the creative market.

Photograph in

Fair enough. From a distributor/marketer's point of view, a dishonest customer is perfectly capable of requesting a refund for films watched just by claiming he/she did not enjoy the content. Though this is true, there are a lot of honest chaps out there who would never think of doing such a thing. Let us focus on their point of view. These honest people end up spending their money on a certain number of products they do not enjoy, solely for the sake of honesty. So in the end, I guess what I am trying to say is that it is all a matter of each individual's Jimminy Cricket, from the producer and distributor down to the smallest member of the audience. 

Supporting or condemning piracy to the bone are both easy ways to avoid staring the issue in the eye. Reality is that modern piracy is complex and fairly new. To new situations, new solutions. The only thing that pushes a caterpillar to transform itself into a butterfly is the caterpillar itself. Transformation of the audience and production/selling companies seems to be the only way to go for a sustainable solution to a situation that urgently needs to be addressed.

Let us start with the transformation of the audience's mindset. It is certainly clear that a film buff should refrain from downloading or purchasing pirate films to save money. Doing this can rightly be considered theft, alike stealing a bright red apple from the supermarket for the sake of it and consuming it without guilt.

This said, in this day and age, the piracy picture has many more hues to it. There are several other reasons for which overseas India film lovers resort to purchasing or downloading pirate DVDs. We will try here to enumerate some of the most common ones.

* In a world concerned with profit, some people do not give thought to doing something creative with their lives and therefore are not duly acquainted with the value and effort behind creative work. This is something to be deplored and a transformation would probably be very healthy in that area. If each consumer knows what it is like to achieve a creative challenge, he/she will be more appreciative of what the great artists of this time are accomplishing. And will be more willing to pay to support that work.
* Pirate DVDs sometimes serve as a trial run for a film that the viewer is considering ultimately owning. Why should I pay for Akshay Kumar's 'Thank You' if I am disillusioned because the first half hour makes me cringe to the point of pressing "Stop" on the remote? There is not much the film industry or governments can do against the fact that customers now rule the kingdom of culture consumption and will not easily let go of the newly gained control over their own wallet. This said, if a pirate film watcher enjoys the film's preview it is only fair that he/she actually buys the official DVD as soon as possible.

* Purchasing a pirate copy sometimes beats waiting for a film to officially release overseas when everyone in India is already talking about it to shreds. This would be a bit like wanting to have the benefit of watching a sports match without knowing the final score beforehand. As an example, a recent urge to watch Onir's 'I Am'  without reading its reviews beforehand recently sent me on a 20 minute wild-goose hunt on the Internet. I started searching at the film's official website for a link to buy the DVD but it was nowhere to be found. I opened the usual suspects: Amazon (Europe), Netflix, etc. Nothing. Google. Finally I reached a link where I could legally purchase the DVD from a trusted website (alternate purchase link in the USA). Phew! If I had been an Internet user more pressed for time, I might have been sadly tempted to click on a more readily available link to download the film for free. I know that if I did, I would have still bought the DVD once it was more widely in stock (knowing I buy all of Onir's films anyway, and NO, I am not just saying that) but still... 

* Last but not least, the thirst of becoming acquainted with a film industry sometimes wins over a phirangi's principles... Would most Indian film watchers abroad have had access to the extremely vast rainbow of performances, genres and epochs of Indian cinema were it not for today's thriving pirate market? Probably not. Would actors such as Shah Rukh Khan benefit from their notoriety abroad if a handful of members of the Asian diaspora did not sell pirated DVDs of his films? I sincerely doubt it. Does that give a phirangi the right to not pay for good entertainment? No.

So even though piracy is an issue that in the surface keeps artists and cinema in general from getting as many revenues as it should, I utopically believe that the picture is not as dark if intelligent consumers ultimately buy the official copy of a film they like. This places the responsibility of our actions within each of us. Buying a film you enjoy is the best you can do to support good cinema. It is indeed equivalent to casting a "vote of the wallet", thereby supporting those who created a film and made it available to the masses.
And here we reach the point of making a film available to the audience. Releasing films or promotional music worldwide on the same day seems compulsory. This has been the case with many music releases, many of them being fortunately available on Itunes upon their very release (and here I will skip talking about the terms under which soundtrack musicians and composers receive payment in India, only one production house being an ethical client in my opinion... but that is a whole different story).

While simultaneous music releases seem to be widespread by now, for some reason, films are still difficult to legally come by outside the cinema halls on their release date. Strangely, producers have not been able to consistently repeat the feat accomplished by the 2010 'Striker' team. 'Striker' was the very first Indian film to release in Indian cinemas AND on Youtube simultaneously on 5 Feb 2010. American audiences were able to watch the film on Youtube against payment and Indians were able to go to the local cinema hall for its release on the same day. Such a solution seems very well adapted to the Internet era and we can only hope that it will become a mainstream practice.

All parties involved therefore need to actively fight to achieve the best solution. Both sides of the market need to be honest about what they are consuming/receiving payment for. As for those people who live off the unethical business of piracy, a whole new chapter to this article could be written. The pirate seller steals from the artist and offers a low-quality product to the customer sometimes under claims that he sells "the real thing". However one must also ponder: What are the hardships and yearly earnings of a pirate seller against those of a producer/actor/director or a consumer? If a pirate seller does not sell pirate DVDs, what other ways of earning money would he/she be tempted to use? Can all consumers buy full price DVDs regularly? What is the role of State subsidies and private sponsorship in cultural production in India and is it currently enough? Only when all these parameters and more are duly taken into consideration may an effective solution appear in the horizon. 

Modern piracy is a "new problem" in terms of the time a society needs to pull it together when confronted with a new unsettling parameter. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic that in the end there might be a set of solutions that will operate successfully for most of the parties concerned. Meanwhile, let us transform ourselves individually by being aware of what piracy means and seeking to duly thank our entertainers for bringing so much joy into our daily lives. Cast your "wallet vote". Keep paying for cinema tickets. Buy the DVDs you enjoy. It will support musicians and film makers to bring you more high quality silver screen moments. And isn't that the whole purpose of cinema? Cheers to many more years of well-paid and beautiful entertainment.

Video interview with Chandan Arora and Siddharth on the simultaneous online release of ' Striker' to fight against piracy
Read about the piracy solution in France here
Read about the IP Protect project here
For more information on recent anti-piracy laws, supporters and detractors see this AlJazeera article (2012)

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