Tuesday, 15 July 2008
Jack felt he had been discriminated
against after his broadband provider
accused him of piracy.
When I think of pirates, my mind is transported to some far away ocean, in which sails a ship full of drunken men with eye patches, wooden legs and questionable attitudes towards women. Quite how, given their crews’ sensory and mobility impairments, these ships struck fear into other sea-going vessels is a mystery. Who knows, perhaps the parrots bore the brunt of the labour. What is not in doubt however, is the enduring legacy of such ships and their law-shy inhabitants. Piracy therefore, unlike most crimes, has been granted a legendary status, and its memory somehow seems to absolve its perpetrators of all wrong doing; namely the murder, rape and theft they were so fond of.
Why then, in today’s society, do we reserve the term of piracy with all its swashbuckling imagery, to describe some Japansese student copying music and movies, which he then sells down the local boozer? As far as I am concerned, this is a tame employment of the word. Yes, piracy is a serious issue, and as we are constantly reminded, is more or less destroying the entertainment industry with its impact growing exponentially each year. Despite this, I prefer to think of it as changing it, as opposed to destroying.
Of course, as everyone knows, the Internet has facilitated an alarming amount of piracy, and the illegal downloading of music and films is no longer the exclusive domain of hi-tech nerds operating empires from their parent’s loft. Within today’s Internet savvy youth culture, programs like LimeWire are commonplace, and most think nothing of downloading albums for free with the click of a mouse; I am guilty myself. Part of the problem, other than the ease of doing so, is that obtaining content in this way is not perceived by the majority as wrong. This is despite relentless attempts to convince us of the fact. Take cinema advertising for example, that likens the downloading or purchasing of pirate material to stealing a car or a handbag. ‘It’s not though, is it?’ is most people’s response.
This is partially due to the perception of those we are ‘stealing’ from. People do forget that the entertainment industry extends way beyond the artists or actors themselves, and some can see no further than the overpaid stars, believing their money can be more ethically spent. It is this Robin Hood mentality makes it much easier to justify the ‘theft’ of a movie or album. I spoke to a woman once who honestly thought she was helping Robbie Williams by choosing to illegally download his album rather than buy it. As a die-hard fan she was, in her twisted logic, cutting his profits in a bid to prevent him coming to a grizzly, Elvis-like end whilst eating cheeseburgers on a solid gold toilet in his LA mansion. For fear of her reaction, I stopped short of telling her that it is much, much too late to avert that particular inevitability.
Let us not forget though, that piracy has existed in some form for decades. Much of my childhood was spent happily sellotaping over the tabs on cassettes in order to copy my friend’s NOW 17, or recording songs directly to tape from the radio. Admittedly, before that vinyl was difficult to pirate, but that period saw the birth of illegal broadcasting with Radio Caroline taking to the seas in 1964. Much later, after CD’s has consigned the cassette tape (and annoyingly, most car stereos) to the dustbin, it became apparent that they could be copied cheaply and easily on any half decent PC, giving rise to the explosion in library attendance amongst the student population, raping and pillaging their CD collections in a manner faintly reminiscent of the original pirates, albeit with more government assistance and less work ethic.
The late nineties saw the beginning of the Internet generation, and piracy made a jump into the mainstream. Napster was the pioneer, enabling its members to ‘share’ files between themselves, and boasted 26 million users before it was shut down after a court injunction in 2001. Since that time, countless other sites have sprung up. Record companies have been accused of burying their heads in the sand when it comes to lost revenue through illegal downloads, and seem to be no closer to a resolution. Last week, Virgin announced that it was clamping down on file sharers, threatening to disconnect users from their Virgin Media service unless their illegal activities ceased. This worried precisely nobody, given that according to Virgin, no prosecutions will be made on the back of the investigation. Ironically, Virgin Media are currently introducing a new fibre optic broadband service which will mean increased download limits, and ensure that the very same pirates can access their loot much more quickly and easily than before.
With regards to music, the increase in pirate activity is forcing a change of tack within the industry. In certain cases, they are aiming to beat the pirates at their own game by offering free downloads, as seen with the recent cases of Coldplay and Radiohead, two of the biggest bands on the planet. Increased live performances and more frequent tours are becoming the norm as a result of the changing face of the music scene, and is becoming more and more important. For instance, there are more festivals this summer than ever before, as bands and artists look to claw back the lost profits from recordings to keep them in the lifestyles they have become accustomed. I often wonder whether if placed in today’s climate, the Beatles would have ceased touring as early in their career as they did.
The entertainment industry is resilient though, and whether it be through live shows, merchandise or public appearance, they will no doubt find other avenues in which to make their exorbitant sums of money. So do not fret; the age of the spoilt, overpaid pop star is far from over, and whether we like it or not, with today’s ubiquitous mass media, the likes of Winehouse and Spears will continue to haunt us whether we are stealing their albums or not...