Can The End of “Net Neutrality” also be the End of Piracy?
Who do I Hate More, the FCC or Comcast?
This past Tuesday, the US Court of Appeals in the DC Circuit sided with cable and broadband giant Comcast over the FCC, seriously challenging the idea of “Net Neutrality.” The idea of neutrality, something I used to think was a good idea, is that the internet doesn’t belong to anyone in particular – so ISP’s should simply let people do whatever they were going to do with their service, treating all information as ones and zeros being pushed down the splash-mountain pipeline of the internet, landing on our monitors with a satisfying rush of data. Whoopee.
So if the ISP is sending emails (very small files), or spam (also very small files generally), or… Say… Full movies (extremely large files), they were not allowed to charge the user any differently. That was what the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) basically told all ISP companies. And as the pipes of broadband have widened over the years, so have the sizes of files going through them – and they ain’t home movies either.
So I suppose the question, from the evil-sucky-meanie-pants corporation is this: Why should we not charge people more if they’re using Bittorrent file sharing sites and we know it? Comcast (who is in the process of purchasing NBC) has a solid reason to want content – and therefore their income stream – protected. So could this be a step closer to the evils of someone owning the “series of tubes,” or is it the first nail in the coffin of piracy? And if it assaults the media pirates of the world, what freedoms do the law-abiding among us have to lose?
Personal Freedom or Ass-Raping? A Cautionary Tale
Firstly, let me say that I obviously have a bias here. When I’m lucky, I am paid to be a content creator. And as such, I believe that I have been the victim of piracy, specifically with my feature film (the unfortunately-titled-but-I’m-still-proud-of-it “Alien Raiders“).
A little story – I posted the trailer for my feature directorial debut on youtube on July 28, 2008, then set about trying to drive traffic to the youtube page so people would watch it. By December, I was ecstatic that I’d gotten around 5,000 hits on my straight-to-video horror flick. I was also quite satisfied with myself that after convincing Warner Brothers to allow me to take the film on the festival circuit that none of my screeners had been pirated – a real fear. Then one day in December 2008, I started getting a lot of comments on the trailer and I noticed that we’d more than doubled our roughly 5K hits in ONE DAY. And newly-posted comments were talking about something called “aXXo.” aXXo, I learned, was the alias of a movie pirate or pirates who ripped DVD’s as they came out and posted them online for free. I already knew about bittorrent – it’s a method by which a movie is ripped into a gajillion pieces and sent over the internet. Unlike the fully-defanged napster.com, there is no centrality to where the files are accessed, so nobody’s at fault. And by “at fault,” I mean there’s no one person to shut down.
It should be noted that Bittorrent’s sidestep from the Napster peer-to-peer exchange to the completely anonymous one they use, in my opinion, is Bittorrent’s first admission of guilt, or at least knowledge that what they’re doing is essentially illegal. If it wasn’t illegal, they wouldn’t have to fragment and decentralize the golden node from which all content flows. But more on their knowledge of their own guilt below.
(NOTE: when I wrote this, I was wrong about Bittorrent and I apologize. As Sadie Tucker’s response below explains and I have verified, Bittorrent is a 100%-legal protocol for moving large files around the internet more efficiently. I should have made the distinction clear between Bittorrent and those who use it to move rather large legal files around and the media pirates who use Torrent streams illegally to distribute material that’s not theirs to release)
So on that day in late December (two months before the street date of “Alien Raiders”), when my hits began doubling pretty much daily and the comments were things like “aXXo FTW!” my first thought was “oh fuck, somebody pirated one of my festival screeners and WB’s going to send the legbreakers to my house! Run! Run coward, run!” But I soon found out that what had ACTUALLY happened was that “Alien Raiders” had been released in Japan in late December, and on that very day the film was pirated. I called Dan Myrick, my executive producer to narc out the bad guys so WB could shut down the torrent. His response was “don’t worry, that happened to all of our titles.” Indeed, it had.
This began a vision quest I had into the pros and cons of piracy from the filmmakers’ point of view. First the pros:
- People are watching your film.
- Lots and lots of people are watching your film, so shut up and bask in the eyeballs.
- You made the film so people would watch it, right? Shut up then, because lots and lots of people are watching your film, jerky.
Then, the cons:
- I don’t get to make movies because I’m awesome and talented or because lots of people watch them, I get to make them because they make money for someone.
- The main age group who would consume a film like “Alien Raiders” is demographically similar to the group who would steal it.
- A generation who first started dicking around with computers in the wake of Napster has grown up to believe that they are free to steal content off the web, because there will be no repercussions.
- Of the 500,000 or more who have downloaded my movie off of a torrent site, it can be argued that some of them might have bought, rented, Netflixed, or legally downloaded it. But with a consequence-free option to steal it anonymously, they chose to spend no money on the product.
Now the people who advocate piracy will say that the free downloads of my movie didn’t really cut into the bottom line of its profitability, and in fact helped to publicize it more. Either way I can’t prove damages so it’s a moot point. Maybe that’s true but what I do know is that 2009 was the first year since the advent of home video that home video sales went DOWN. I know that the home video market overseas has virtually dried up in countries like Japan and Spain, and that film producers are no longer able to use “foreign presales” to raise money to make movies as they have in the past. The bad economy is also to blame, but box office is actually up – not spectacularly up, but in accordance with how much it tends to go up annually. So have people stopped watching movies at home, or have they simply stopped paying for them?
And I must admit here that I am not guiltless. In the heady days of Napster (1999-2001), I would spend all day on that site looking for every obscure song I ever heard once but didn’t know where to find on CD. On a dial-up connection, it could take 30 minutes to download a single song, and weeks of my life went down that rabbit-hole. When iTunes hit the scene with a legal and better way to do it, I switched and never looked back. Like a lot of people, I saw the value in being able to find and download content as I saw fit to do it, but I was not afraid to pay actual money for the privilege. And no, I’ve never downloaded a single movie, not even my own.
And in the days when I was Napster-crazy, even as I defended my actions, deep down I knew free file sharing was stealing. As I suspect most of the Pirate Bay-type people probably know, even though they defend what they do.
The Argument Against Content Piracy as Theft
I’m all for academics and eggheads, but I have to say that the argument against piracy fails to connect the dots between their ideal world where “information wants to be free” (either an unintentional misunderstanding or an intentional misinterpretation of what Stewart Brand said at the first Hacker’s Conference in 1984) despite some enticing logic. It’s basically a Libertarian stance twisted to the point of breaking, and it even has a political movement behind it. That movement is called – no kidding – The Pirate Party. I will not bore you with their manifestoes and creeds, but it all boils down to this: They believe all information should be free – that’s free as in “no cost,” not free as in “available.” That when you copy a DVD and put it on Bittorrent or other file-sharing sites, that the original is still there to be sold, so the original value of the product is not lost. Finally, they believe that it is more important to have individual liberties in the digital world than for the evils of government and commerce to surveil anyone on their home computers. And since the millions of thefts currently taking place are done from the safety and comfort of each users’ home – that any policing of intellectual property is a violation of free speech and personal freedom.
And by the by, the people who support this movement like BoingBoing co-editor and sci-fi novelist Cory Doctorow don’t care one bit if they bring down the system with them, in their crusade to “free” all “information.” Doctorow outlines his his ideas about why big-budget movies are outmoded here, explaining to us plebes and what the future of media holds for us. In the world where Doctorow’s ideas take hold, instead of big-budget movies (or indie movies, see below), we will all become content creators for one another for free. He says, “it may not be as pretty, but at the rock-bottom prices that some of this stuff gets made for, it’s viable to make a slightly crummy-looking YouTube video that’s the exact, perfect video for you and 38 other people who are kinked just like you.”
Thanks Cory, I’ll get right on that.
So we’re all content creators (I guess you’re reading my blog, eh?), and we’re all content consumers, and we should all be allowed to the buffet for free all the time to consume whatever we want. What, then, does have value? In my opinion, the real losers here are indie films and filmmakers, which have already begun to disappear from the landscape not unlike music video directors in the late 1990’s. Why? Piracy can’t replicate the scale and bombast of the theatrical experience, so if you like seeing movies in theaters – especially big-budget Hollywood movies with sizable marketing budgets – that experience is safe. It’s the little movies that get released on home video only, or the indie gems that play a few select cities then go to DVD or Blu-Ray to find an audience. The middle and working class of movies. That’s what we’re probably going to lose first.
The Pirate argument boils down to believing that if technology allows you to steal something, and it doesn’t destroy the original, then it’s not really stealing. I would argue that when you buy a DVD or Blu-Ray disk, you’re not buying it for the flat plastic coaster or the utility of the textiles in the casing – you’re purchasing an experience. An experience that someone has made with their resources and they own it. It’s for the creator to decide if it should have a Creative Commons license attached to it or if they want to charge you $100K for the privilege of watching – and experiencing it. And it’s for you to decide if you want to pay what they’re charging, and if you’re not, then you don’t get that experience. Experience of whatever you want is not a right, which is why I don’t get to walk into a movie theater and sit in an empty unsold seat whenever I feel like it.
And as filmmakers, we don’t have art galleries, we don’t sell the original, we don’t have concerts and swag to sell consumers. We’re a little more like writers in that our final product is the thing we sell. Doctorow, the various Pirate Parties, and people who support piracy say that they’re just doing what the technology allows, our economic model has to change. Which it will, I suppose, but only because law enforcement is doing nothing to stop illegal downloading.
For the Love
I hereby invite anyone who believes the cause of the pirates is good to come visit me on a set. They can hang out by the trailers, they can eat some crafty, they can meet the actors, they can see the sweaty grips, electrics, art dogs, etc. and witness first-hand how much labor goes into creating the ones and zeros that they assume “want to be free.” The only condition to my invitation is that I want them to say something to everyone’s face on the day, while we’re all devoting our precious lifetime to making this perishable good called content. The thing I would love it if the piracy-siding individual to say is that this – “all your labor, all your brain power and creativity ultimately makes something which has no value because the end product isn’t a textile or a building or a crop of food, just a digital code. Ipso-facto it wants to be free.”
Again, I’m unclear what is supposed to cost money in the Pirate Party’s or Doctorow or aXXo’s world – but for a group of people who don’t want copyright to staunch innovation, they seem to overlook the fact that their efforts will kill the act of creation itself by robbing it of its profitability. Are we in the horse-drawn-carriage business at the dawn of the motorcar? I would like to hope not, as that would mean that Doctorow is correct, signaling the death-knell of indie film and an age when all we will have for entertainment are kitten-hits-dude-in-the-nuts videos on youtube for 38 fans.
I’m not in this for the money, never have been. I suppose I’m one of the lucky people who gets paid to do this from time to time. That being said, there are hard costs, sweat equity, actual things purchased and destroyed in the process of making a film. And the hope is that I can use my skill-set, whatever it is, to earn a living just like anyone else. Unlike musicians who can afford to make their recordings a loss-leader for their tour, movies are the sole end product filmmakers create and to give them away – and I don’t mean to make a copy for yourself under Fair Use or to show it to a handful of people at your house or something – is to distribute my film which robs me of the ability to distribute it myself for money. So, sorry Pirate Party and all of you on Bittorrent, you’re part of the problem and despite your academic sidestepping, and I think you know it. If you want to live in a Utopia where all media is free in your environment, you’re also going to have to live in a Dystopia where there isn’t as much media in the first place, and the quality of that media is inevitably going to suffer. Perhaps the evil, corporate progress made this week by Comcast is the first step towards preventing that from happening.