People pirate for a lot of reasons. Some films or songs are old or esoteric and can’t be found any other way. Movies cost too much these days. Most often of all the torrent culture is centered around anime or other foreign media that, let’s face it, don’t get much screen time or merchandising on American channels. Is it stealing? Yes. But I think if countries can make stealing for food legal, then there is something of a case for internet piracy.
I know, I know, it’s a far cry to go from taking a chunk of Parmigiano to NEEDING the new Ghostbusters before it’s in theaters. But hear me out, if you will.
The Golden Age of Piracy circa 1650-1680 began in an age where European powers stopped fighting over their respective religions and started fighting over their colonial conquests. These colonies were established, often violently, in order to enrich the coffers of the reigning monarchies of the time. Europe, if you may recall, is situated quite a ways from say, Hispaniola. Because of distance and the need to use skilled sailors over any Joe Schmoe, the world suddenly had an abundance of people who were suited to become pirates. Felt cheated out of your slice of the pie? Just take the whole thing.
If I may draw a parallel here, I believe we are coming out of a Golden Age of Internet Piracy. Future generations will point to the late nineties to the late naughties as an unrestricted age of downloading, torrenting, and clandestine cheating of established powers of the spice hoard that is digital media. And like Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, or Captain Kidd, the pioneers of the era have their own handles: TvTeam, SaM, .Bone. There’s a whole slew of porno pirates who, as far as I can tell, are tolerated because the porn industry comes off as pretty sleazy in the first place. I don’t need to point to the infamous Pirate Bay as the literal haven for these blackhearted binary swashbucklers. And that age is fading as movie studios and record companies find more and more sophisticated methods to hang these pirates. Services like Netflix and Hulu offer legal and relatively affordable alternatives to plying the high seas.
But like the 17th Century, our 21st Century Golden Age came about because of imperialism. Blackbeard, arguably the most famous pirate of all time, became a pirate after plausibly fighting or trading during Queen Anne’s War (Hence the infamous Queen Anne’s Revenge, his flagship.) Queen Anne’s War was partially fought over who got to control what is today Canada, Florida and the Carolinas, which, i don’t have to remind everyone, produced much of its wealth through the use of slave plantations. The English were sandwiched between the French in Canada and the Spanish in Florida, and the population of Florida never recovered economically from that war, probably laying the groundwork for why governance there is so messed up today. Not to mention, because Europe was so far away and troops hard to move in, this war is also known as the Third Indian War: tribes of Native American nations allied to each side and fought for control of what used to be their own lands. Like all wars, there was considerable fallout, blatant treaty violations, and backstabbing leading to the eventual French Indian War in 1775, and ultimately the creation of the United States of America from 1776-1788. Basically we were just fed up with Europe’s bullshit and decided to get along by ourselves. (‘MURICA!)
Considering the clusterfuck that Edward Teach aka Blackbeard must have seen during this period, piracy was probably the sanest thing he could have taken up as a second career. Let’s sum it up: because the rulers of Europe decided to carve up the “New World,” we had a huge sprawling conflict over three continents that ultimately laid the groundwork for the chaos that birthed the Golden Age of Piracy.
Now let’s compare the high seas of the 1600s to the internet.
Before piracy of digital content was a problem, you had a few Great Powers of media comparable to the European nations: the film studios, tech companies and record companies. They had what can be called a stranglehold on media exchange- VHS vs Beta, MiniDisc vs Cd and Blu-Ray vs HD were some of the skirmishes in the grand war for control over our earballs and eyeballs.
There’s a clear parallel to the high seas: you needed expensive research into hardware (building ships) and skilled programmers and engineers to actually run all the computers (sailors, privateers, Navies.) Not many organizations have the kind of resources to put those things together and mine the rich vein of artists (read: colonies) for profit. Pretty much the only way you could see a movie before digital was buying it or going to a theater. In this metaphor the role of the Americas will be played by the actors, directors and filmmakers, and the pirates… well.
I remember being a projectionist in an arthouse cinema in New York City and having a tech come in to show us how to run movies on the new digital projection system. It wasn’t much different from my home laptop. You got the file from the company, either on a disc or a tech came to load it in and lock the settings so it ran perfectly. In the larger theaters the system could be pre-programmed, rendering us projectionists a thing of the past. If my life had taken a different turn I can imagine getting laid off and developing the kind of Blackbeard-esque ire that would make me become an internet uploader of pirated content: anything to profit from an upheaval of my way of life.
Of course, people have all different reasons for uploading, but then there were all sorts of pirates back in the Golden Age. Some did it for fame and glory, others because they sort of fell into it. My hypothetical swashbuckling is essentially what happened to Mary Read, who was a career soldier that became unemployed during peacetime and turned pirate.
Keep in mind that piracy was not new in either Golden Age. People used to copy VHS and record music onto cassettes long before high quality downloads were available. Highwaymen have existed probably as long as people have travelled. But by a colossal convergence of factors, pirate downloads became the most popular medium for everything during the late nineties. Cds and DVDs had started to come packaged with a lot of fancy extras, pushing the price higher and higher. Movies hadn’t changed from the popcorn palaces of the 1950’s, but ticket prices had only gone up. Computer storage was becoming more and more affordable, and digital quality was often just as good as the official format. In 2016 you can download a film from a pirate a few months after it’s out and reliably show it on your enormous high-definition 3-D television.
And, it has to be said, neither 1600s Europe or the production companies have handled piracy very well. Europe waged war. Movie studios raised the prices of movie tickets, so today you can’t see a movie in a decently sized theater for less than fourteen bucks. Then they started prosecuting, taking the music industry’s lead. And, oh gods, they forced 3-D on us as if it were Jujubes.
There’s a kind of arms race with the pirates- instead of filming at the theater, now they just hack the studio server. Studios stick tracers into their film files and start prosecuting Youtube celebrities using their footage. The vitriol just falls everywhere. If Queen Anne’s War is any indication, cracking down on pirates only intensifies the chaos and leaves lasting fallout on the people who make the art in the first place. New bands who need that initial flush of cash can’t make it because we assume their music should be distributed free. Studios cling to remakes and old franchises instead of doling out cash to experimental directors. Remember Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner? How about Cronenberg, or Kubrick, or Peter Jackson? Is it even possible to convince a studio to give you money to make something beautifully weird any more?
If I were running a movie studio or theater, I would try to appreciate my customers a little bit more, and take into account where my revenue is coming from. Most of the money a movie makes is either in merchandising or overseas. That means the revenue stream bypasses theaters that are the front line of exposure for films. They’re not raking in any of the cash from the t-shirts, the toys, the comics or the novelty mugs. A theater has to survive on popcorn, local ads and tickets, which is hard to do when the Imax costs twenty bucks and customers can get the same quality at home, legally in a few months or illegally right away. Studios can easily lower the licensing for the film itself and boost numbers at the box office, keeping theaters afloat and likely trebling their merchandising revenue.
A side effect of piracy is a slow evolution of the movie experience that hasn’t changed since the 1920’s. The Nighthawk Cinema does a wonderful job of serving brunch and cocktails during the movie, and creating custom trailers for a unique experience. It’s a luxury theater ticket, but one I gladly pay. Other theaters are putting in lush seating for a better experience.
How about providing a fifteen-minute intermission for nation-wide advertisers to slip in more ad space, while giving folks a chance to go pee or buy more popcorn? That would reduce product placement and free up directors for creativity. It would let people talk and speculate about the last half of the movie, like we do at live theater. You could buy Deadpool T-shirts because you loved that ball joke so much. There could be a Copernican Revolution in how the film presents itself: no longer a fast collage of action, sex and materialism, but a two-hour event with a split in the middle for a quiet coffee or beer, a snack, and getting to know your date. Of course, the fast-paced braindeath will still be available, but offering something of substance in the larger theaters will foster a more profitable movie experience for everyone.
Ultimately I see our Golden Age of Piracy give way to something better. People will get fed up with the bullshit, and all the pirates will get together and say “NO MORE,” and a United States of Culture will spring from the chaos. We used to turn out in droves for the latest Troma film, not because it was a star-studded masterpiece with tons of marketing, but because it connected us to other nerds and geeks who thought this shit was off the hook. (Also Tromettes. My libido still remembers the Tromettes.)
If movies cost a reasonable ticket price, offering a unique service, people will flock to the movies- its basic economics. Take away the reason to pirate and there will be no pirates. But the trick is, I think, not to salt the earth trying to keep all your wealth. Like Florida. Don’t be like Florida.