What I’d tell my own kids about piracy. Why scarcity is a good thing.

Photo by Gaia Moments

Photo by Gaia Moments

The ongoing debate over copyright in the digital age is clouded by so many layers of new-age malarkey and overblown, political banner-waving that it’s easy to lose sight of the behavioral realities behind all the self-serving theories of bloggers, legal scholars, corporate interests, and futurists. Take a very common activity like watching movies online via torrents or other sites that enable free viewing (aka piracy).  My kids’ generation, growing up around this behavior as a norm, will hear words to describe this kind of movie viewing as contrarily theft or sharing.  What are they to make of it?  Certainly, I’ve taught them to share and not to steal.  For the sake of their cultural and psychological growth, however, I’d suggest for the purposes of discussion, that this kind of media overconsumption is, if nothing else, dumb.

For context, we need to admit that the majority of unlicensed, online movie viewing is done by young, middle-class, generally privileged Americans, who are watching mainstream, Hollywood-produced fare. Search for top movies viewed through torrent sites, for example, and you’ll find that the lists will comprise tentpole films produced by the big studios who represent the part of the industry most vilified for efforts to mitigate piracy. If that hypocrisy is not enough to raise your brows, though, the very nature of these films is then used as a justification for the pirate-enabled viewing in itself. We typically hear some combination of the following:  “So much of the mainstream stuff is junk that it doesn’t deserve to be paid for.  These films already make millions. I would never pay to see it anyway, so it’s not like they’re losing a sale.”  If my own kids presented me with these rationales, we’d have a serious talk because this is corrupt thinking no matter what the law, the technologists, or the economic theories say.

Consolidate these oft-repeated positions into the declarative, first person, and the stupid shines through a little clearer:  “I’m going to spend hours of my life watching movies I probably won’t like, but because I expect not to like them, I’m not going to pay for them.”  And as a kicker, “I am going to help put money in the pockets of the people who stole the movies in the first place.”  Bloggers like Mike Masnick will try to argue the new and bizarre economics of free media; and scholars like Mr. Lessig will argue that there is something intellectually or culturally constraining about “permission culture.” Then, these purely academic theories trickle down to the ears of my kids and their contemporaries, who translate it all into the aforementioned rationale. But as a parent living in the real world, what I’ve just heard my kids say is that they’re shoplifting cartons of potato chips at the corner store, which doesn’t matter because chips aren’t real food anyway.  Hence, my kids now have both a moral and a health problem.

With regard to movies (or any creative media) the first thing I’d tell my own children is that their lives are not at all enriched by watching scores of films they probably won’t like. To the contrary, when they make time for media consumption, they should develop a critical sense for what kind films might be worth the investment of their time and attention. What matters is not the fifty films they’ll forget within hours of viewing, but the five this year that will change their lives in some way. It doesn’t matter that the sale for the producers of the tentpole is zero whether my kid watches it through a torrent or doesn’t see it at all; what matters is making the decision that if it isn’t worth paying for, it probably isn’t worth the equally valuable resources of time and attention. In short, it’s not only okay to let some things go, you don’t really have a choice.

It is a valuable component of cultural experience for the individual to pay attention to what kind of art or media affects him and to seek out that which fulfills these emotional connections.  Nobody can watch, read, listen to, or experience everything; so there is not only nothing wrong with scarcity, it is an absolute necessity for an individual’s cultural development. Those who promote the idea of abundance as some sort of digital-age renaissance are not really contributing to a more enlightened, more cultured generation so much as they’re breeding a new crop of agitated media junkies. Remove for a moment the questions of legality or creators’ rights, and we’re still living in an era of media obesity and don’t yet know what this means for the future of culture in general.

Many of the filmmakers whose works have touched my life and the lives of my contemporaries were dead before the Internet was even built.  We somehow managed to experience their films without this technology and without in any way contributing to IP theft. Through pre-Internet experiences, I have seen motion pictures that I doubt my own children will ever know existed; and still, in over thirty years of loving this medium, I know that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of films that I will not see in my lifetime. This is true for my children as well, despite the overblown promise of technology to put “the world at their fingertips.” So, what I’ll tell my kids is simply this:  “You can’t consume it all, you shouldn’t try, and whatever is worth your time is also worth your money.”

© 2013 – 2018, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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29 comments

  • “For context, we need to admit that the majority of unlicensed, online movie viewing is done by young, middle-class, generally privileged Americans, who are watching mainstream, Hollywood-produced fare.”

    Not to ruin your excellent “glutton Americans” narrative, but according to most studies I’ve seen, USA has the some of the lowest if not the lowest piracy rate in the world(1), and it’s declining.

    If you look at the studies, the biggest piracy heavens are in fact all in Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Which of course, include some of the poorest places in the world, and where mainstream legal alternatives often don’t exist at all, let alone affordable legal alternatives.

    (1) http://www.webpronews.com/us-has-lowest-software-piracy-rate-2010-05 ; http://idobi.com/news/2011/11/piracy-rate-declining-as-legal-options-flourish/

    • I’m not going to take the time at the moment to sort out the validity of either of those sources. But whether the piracy rate is or isn’t falling in the US, let’s not pretend that any of the rationale cited in the post has anything to do with impoverished foreigners, who just can’t get enough of Hangover II, and that’s why we have to deem a torrent site free speech so Levi’s, Target, Nissan, and McDonalds can all advertise to the impoverished people of Nairobi. It’s just silly to go there. An estimated 4 million people a day visit TPB alone. I’m guessing they’re people with pretty reliable Internet access. Been to poor parts of Africa lately? The WiFi totally blows.

      • It’s an excellent case to make to your kids regarding the promise of everything at your fingertips, via the promise of technology. The advertising memes that get thrown at them while they are growing up in a consumerist society come at a rate that is almost overwhelming. “I must have that,…and THAT,..and that too,…” will be their natural response without your intervention. I love the article, and your points have already been illuminated, as you pointed out to the previous replier. Unfortunately, those points will have to be repeated over and over, because the “free beer” mentality is so prevalent. My kids grew up around other kids ‘sharing’ their ‘free music and movies’, because I wasn’t around. My bad…and their Mother’s. When I’ve tried to explain this to their 20-something minds, the just blink and look sullen. There IS value in scarcity, and finding the movie or music that you really DO like, because it has an amazing effect on you, giving you pause to think deeply about the way you connect with the ideas presented in that piece or art, is part of the making of a worthwhile life, for them, and you. Thanks much for this.

      • Adam, thank you for adding your comment, and I apologize for not acknowledging it sooner. I’m very glad the piece is something you find relevant. It’s always great to hear comments one way or another from people who are not necessarily focused on a daily basis in these copyright wars themselves. Hence, allowing us a glimpse at another parent with college-age kids is very enlightening. Much obliged.

      • The world is much bigger than the USA. The Pirate Bay, like the Internet itself, doesn’t share the same arbitrary political boundaries that the good ol’ aristocrats of yesteryear carved the world into.

        Internet access is not necessarily bad in these high piracy countries, and regardless, offline piracy dominates the world according to RIAAs own studies. It’s a bit of an inconvenient truth I suppose, because that sort of thing is not exactly logistically easy to control.

      • “M” made a couple of good points. It’s not places like Nairobi where piracy is rampant, but in the “emerging” countries. I currently live in the Philippines, and I don’t even NEED internet access to be a pirate if I choose to be one. Movies, music & software are all readily available, downloaded by someone else & burned to disc. I have neighbors whose entire media library (movies, music, karaoke discs) consists of nothing but pirated copies. Piracy isn’t an ethical dilemma with most people here; it’s a business model, and the thought never enters their minds that it’s wrong in any way.

        The first time I lived here (1987-91) availability WAS an issue. I couldn’t find legal software, movies or music outside of Manila or a couple of other major cities. That is no longer the case. Plenty of options exist for the average middle class Filipino to purchase legal media, they just in most cases choose not to.

        Reliable internet access isn’t much of an issue either, although what USians would consider “high speed” is difficult to come by. I have no trouble downloading whole Linux distros with my little 4G cellular dongle, so I’m sure downloading movies wouldn’t be an issue. Slow, but entirely doable.

        Your article made several good points to think about. Scarcity does breed selectivity in our decision making about what’s important to us. We’ve gotten used to having everything and having it now. Perhaps a little scarcity would be good for us.

      • Thanks for reading and taking the time to reply, Charlie. And I am very much aware of the disparate nature of what is typically called piracy when we look at different countries. The post, of course, was very American-centric, which is why I took the angle of talking to my own kids and about movies in particular. We can have a conversation about global access to media and tech standards, but these are headaches for content creators, too; and the technology moves faster than most businesses can adapt. Then, of course, there’s the whole local laws bugaboo.

        In context to what I wrote, I think the truly decadent conversation and rationales are happening in the United States and in other developed nations that do have access, wealth, and freedom. Hence, the post is more about a cultural relationship to our media and our definition of freedom. Odds are, most parents who’ve handed down a rule to a teenage child have been met with some sort of angry protest against oppression and an assertion of rights. Today, grown up politicians, lawyers, and business leaders have taken this adolescent instinct and turned it into an “idea,” essentially telling teenagers and young adults here in America that access to unlicensed media is a right and a matter of freedom — that watching XMen in their dorm via The Pirate Bay is striking a blow for the cause. Then, the kids say, “I didn’t like XMen. I’m really glad I didn’t pay for it.” I submit that the college kid who does this has lost all sense of what it means to exercise liberty or to appreciate cinema.

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  • David, Excellent points! As a songwriter/musician, I consider the scarcity principle to be the holy grail of the creative process. The less machines do for us, the more we humans have to do for ourselves. Some of our greatest works of art were created out of scarcity and limitation. Some of the best songs I’ve written were without an instrument or recorder in hand (just the mind creating in its own space). Isn’t it telling that popular complaints regarding the lack of “quality” in today’s cultural offerings come alongside a technology explosion on steroids? Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys would come into the studio with all the arrangements in his head and was called a “genius” for this. It’s actually not so difficult to plan complex structures out in our heads if we just have the will and persistence to do it. Back in the day, musicians had to actually play. When there was no click, copy and paste, people’s mental abilities had to compensate (a good thing, most would agree). Letting machines think for us allows us to do more with our time, but are we doing things BETTER with our time and is it making us happier? These questions seem to be answering themselves for us. “Necessity is the mother of invention.” You could just as easily substitute necessity with scarcity. With less, people tend to learn what they have beetter and go deeper into it. I learned of a recent psychological study several weeks ago on NPR or CBC confirming this exact point. It concluded that people are getting dumber in this digital age. It confirmed that people who did fewer things and spent more time doing them (such as playing a piano or learning a new language) were not only gaining greater depth of thinking but were…get ready for this one… HAPPIER! The conlusion was that we are not as good at multi tasking as we think we are. It comes at a cost. Haven’t we all noticed the lack of joy on the street in recent years? Think it’s just about the bad ecnomomy and lack of meaningful jobs that pay a living wage? Well, then how do we explain the optimism of past generations that weathered even harder times, always ready to sing together on the spot and dance the night away with holes in their shoes? I hear this sentiment expressed more and more from friends and strangers alike. I think we’re going through a particular “funk” as a society right now where we have to re-evaluate what actually makes us deeply satisfied, as opposed to being addicted to “easy distractions.” All of this technology is also making us more narcissistic because there is less reason to feel that the people sitting next to us are important to our lives. So many missed opportunities, including missed jobs, missed dating, missed friendships and laughter…If it’s “all who you know,” how many people are forging real depth of relationships with strangers on line? HR departments are getting thousands of applications for 1 job! Isn’t it obvious that we all need to keep our social skills well lubed, especially NOW in this age of technological distraction? I liken these times to the explosion in commercial food production when Americans were, all at once, spoiled for choice in regards to unhealthy junk food with long shelf life, canned veggies, artificial sweeteners and the time it took to realize the heavy toll all of that was taking on our health and happiness. Just my 200 cents! Thanks again!

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. Funny that the Web industry preaches the value of abundance for the consumer but scarcity of revenue for you as a musician. I’ll respond more fully ASAP. Cheers!

    • To Thinkaboutit: Sorry for my short response earlier, and thanks again for taking the time to comment here. Everything you’ve said taps into the very reason I started this blog in the first place. I agree that the hazards of the digital age are potentially more serious than illegal downloads of music and movies, which is part of why I reject a lot of the theory and even some of the supposed economic remedies proposed by the tech industry crowd. You seem to share my instinct that attitudes toward online piracy are exemplary of other forms of social degradation, including rampant conspiracy madness to the extent that people actually give the Internet and social media credit for free expression. This is a dangerous reversal of machine and master in my opinion, and it is relevant that the price we may pay will be to silence many voices who otherwise would elevate free expression to its best purpose.

      To your points about art and technology in particular, I remember thinking about a minimalist (or McLuhanesque) idea in college that each medium might be defined by what senses or neurons it can and can’t excite. With music, which I consider the purest art form, those definitions are obvious; there’s never a doubt in the listener’s mind that he’s experiencing something wholly manufactured, and the hands of the makers are part of the experience. Cinema, of course, has this strange suspension of disbelief thing, and any given film creates a reality that no matter how otherworldly also has to hide the hands of its makers, or it won’t work. If you think too long about this and then consider the several hundred decisions using multiple media that have to be made to complete a film, it’s hard not to have respect for just about anything that gets produced and consider a miracle anything that’s truly brilliant. It is shocking that this kind of work is ground into fodder to drive Web traffic, and as you describe, I think the audiences are being ground up as well.

      The narcissism to which you refer, I believe, stems from the fact that people see the Web as an extension of themselves. This fuses with a belief that your music, or Brian Wilson’s music, or somebody’s movie is already in some way “their property” because it is within easy reach of this ontological appendage they’ve grown. And then, the relationship becomes one that’s about volume and speed, absorbing the viewer or listener into the machine. As you rightly describe, this is like gorging on cheap junk food.

      Okay, that was a little disjointed, but I’m tired. Forgive me. And I do appreciate you joining the conversation.
      DN

  • what matters is making the decision that if it isn’t worth paying for, it probably isn’t worth the equally valuable resources of time and attention.

    What a coincidence — that’s what I’m teaching my kids about sex. It’s also why I disdain organ donation, child adoption and the the welfare of wild animals that can’t be purchased in stores.

    From a more purely economic perspective, your argument is rubbish since it’s quite conceivable there would exist media from which I’d derive just enough scant, marginal pleasure to compensate the opportunity cost of sitting down and watching, but not enough pleasure to make the indulgence worth two hours of my time plus twelve dollars to boot.

    • In which case, you entirely miss the point of the post, but thanks for commenting anyway.

      • I don’t think I did. Your point is that it’s not rational or worthwhile to indulge in anything you’d be unwilling to pay for. This has the distinction of being (1) a bizarrely commodified, commercialized view of the world (2) which even neoliberal economists would mock. Hard to hit both of those at the same time.

      • Actually, no. It really boils down to the fact that all of the justifications for torrents used by privileged, first-world citizens are childish variations on “I want what I want.” You can indulge in anything you want I suppose, but is there really so much you want to or need to consume that it exceeds your ability to consume it in a legal and fair manner? There is nothing bizarre about these media being “commercialized” unless you consider the number of middle-class jobs we’re talking about as an anomaly in free and democratic societies.

      • “is there really so much you want to or need to consume that it exceeds your ability to consume it in a legal and fair manner?”

        Of course there is — that’s virtually the definition of scarcity. Now, responses to scarcity vary and obviously the standard response is not to simply steal the items you can’t afford. That’s because our responses to scarcity are constrained by risk aversion, respect for the law, and empathy for the people from whom we’d be stealing. But respect for the law wanes when consumers feel laws are unfair or outmoded (what we’re seeing right now with marijuana and, to a large extent, copyright). Risk aversion matters less when the risks of stealing are low. All that’s left is empathy, and you can certainly make arguments from empathy, but those would be very different from silly arguments like: “why would you want to consume anything for which you don’t want to pay?”

        To address more earnestly the original point I think you were making, there are plenty of reasons people might download content that they don’t think is good enough to merit consuming in the normal way. I myself do this, and I do it largely out of impulsivity, boredom and laziness. I had no desire to see Sex and the City 2, for example, but I kept reading scathing outraged blog posts about it and finally got curious enough to download it. I was not nearly curious enough to wait in line or brave bedbugs in a movie theater; also, I anticipated correctly that it was not the type of movie that would sustain my interest without my having the ability to fast forward boring parts, browse the web in another window and whatnot.. When the movie came out on video there probably would have been other options for consuming it, but by then the press coverage would have died down, my lazy Sunday afternoon would have elapsed, and I would have lost interest. Plus, I still would have needed to create an account on some website, enter all my information, choose a password with the requisite number of capital letters, numbers, punctuation marks and hieroglyphics, possibly download their DRM app, do captcha and email verification and get spam for the rest of my life. Not to mention that somewhere in some customer database, my name would permanently be linked with Sex and the City 2. The torrent was more appealing in basically every way. You can call this mindset childish if you want, but very few adults outgrow their desires for ease, convenience, privacy and conservation of $.

      • That’s all relatively common and may sound innocuous enough, but the bottom line is that in your small way you contributed to a large-scale enterprise that literally harms the creators of these works, and you did so in order to watch something you expected not to like. And did you like it? Maybe you have more time than I do, but it’ll be weeks before I get through everything on Netflix that I find intriguing, and more stuff will become available before that — and that’s just filmed entertainment. I won’t live long enough to read everything on my intended list. And there is nothing difficult about using any number of legal and fair-trade systems.

        It seems to me you have two choices: 1) refuse to acknowledge the harm done by torrent sites; or 2) not care about it because your role in that harm is so small as to be almost immeasurable. This has nothing to do with attitudes about the law as a concept and everything to do with basic fairness and the same principles of social justice you might apply to some other social decision you probably make in your life.

        The post, of course, isn’t about exploitation of labor but about my personal take on media gluttony and what I really do tell my own kids about the investment of their time in media consumption.

      • I don’t know if I could say with a straight face that I liked the movie as an artistic work, but I think I derived pleasure from viewing it because it made reading the copious criticisms and reviews more enjoyable. (Put another way, it allowed me to join in a cultural conversation). I don’t have infinite free time, either, and often I’ll download something and it will sit in my bittorrent folder for days or months before I remember or get around to watching it. But just as often, I’ll come home late from work tired but not quite ready to pass out and I’ll feel like relaxing with a movie or TV show, and it will just occur to me that I want to watch something — maybe something recommended to me for the first time by a coworker earlier that day, or something I read about awhile ago. And the download takes 4 minutes or so, and it opens in VLC — a simple, lightweight app that does not spy on me — with no annoying glitches or ads. And if I don’t finish watching it but need to catch a flight the next day, I can copy it to cloud storage or a thumb drive or any of an infinite number of places and finish watching it on the plane.

        I don’t ponder very often the harm caused by infringement because, yeah, my role is so small as to be almost immeasurable. Also, I know pirates say this often, but I would pay for content if it could be delivered to me in a manner that maximized the conveniences and pleasures made possible by modern technology. If the content industry continues to package and disseminate its products in ways that deliberately and unnecessarily reduce the utility consumers derive from consuming them, then I won’t feel sorry for that industry if it suffers when consumers choose easy alternatives.

        Catering more readily to consumers could mean reduced profit margins, but sometimes technology and the societal landscape change in ways that reduce industries’ profit margins, and that’s life. When technology was less developed, entrepreneurs could exploit those technological inefficiencies (say, the inability of the average person to own a film projector) to eke out profits (by opening movie theaters). With VHS and Betamax, people could now record and screen content for themselves or their friends (even if this sometimes amounted to infringement), and some people made less money but other entrepreneurs (VCR manufacturers, Blockbuster, the guys who make microwaved popcorn) made more. I’m only a casual spectator in the current copyright wars, but my guess would be that in 10 years or so the content providers will finally have compromised on better, consumer-friendly subscription services, and piracy will always happen at the periphery but content providers will survive. We’ll also see continued growth in user-generated content, product placement, and revenues from smartphone and tablet apps.

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  • Iris wrote:
    Also, I know pirates say this often, but I would pay for content if it could be delivered to me in a manner that maximized the conveniences and pleasures made possible by modern technology

    Right, because using iTunes to download a movie is just SOOO hard.

  • What’s inconvenient about iTunes, other than price Iris? Technologically the search is more efficient,the quality of files is better (or at least there is less chance that the file is bad) you have one click download and you can even not have the file on your machine and stream it on your iPad.
    How does ITunes or Amazon not maximize the conveniences made possible by modern technology?
    The ONLY convenience you are really having an issue with is the price of the content. But that’s not a technology argument at all. As such, it’s disingenuous of you to argue as if it were.

  • “But just as often, I’ll come home late from work tired but not quite ready to pass out and I’ll feel like relaxing with a movie or TV show, and it will just occur to me that I want to watch something — maybe something recommended to me for the first time by a coworker earlier that day, or something I read about awhile ago.”

    And just as often I’ll come home late from work and think I really want to watch the new Kevin Spacey show that is only available on Netflix. And so I’ll plunk down the money for Netflix so I can watch the show.
    I guess what you’re saying is I should have to subsidize your viewing habits with my money. If Netflix weren’t profitable, how many shows do you think they’d produce that you’d even want to watch?

  • Iris wrote:
    “I don’t know if I could say with a straight face that I liked the movie as an artistic work, but I think I derived pleasure from viewing it because it made reading the copious criticisms and reviews more enjoyable. (Put another way, it allowed me to join in a cultural conversation)”
    OR, you could have payed 4.99 to rent Sex & The City 2 on iTunes. Or you could have paid for HBO and watch it when it came on. Or you could pay for a movie ticket when it was in theaters.
    There was nothing precluding you from joining in a cultural conversation since there were plenty of avenues for you to get the content that would have paid for the production of said content.
    if I hear good things about Wolf of Wall Street and I want to contribute to the cultural conversation at the very least I should pay the fee to watch the movie, no?
    Or do you think movies should grow on trees? or do you think us rubes should pay to take part in the conversation while you get to fire up your VLC player and not?

  • Iris wrote: “Plus, I still would have needed to create an account on some website, enter all my information, choose a password with the requisite number of capital letters, numbers, punctuation marks and hieroglyphics, possibly download their DRM app, do captcha and email verification and get spam for the rest of my life. ”

    If you torrent then your IP address is going to be linked to Sex and the City. Ah, but you can buy software than masks your IP Address. Which involves downloading software, and potentially registering said software, and potentially getting spam email from said company as they update their software.
    If you’re paying a company for download speeds, then you’re either entering your credit card or paying through pay pal. And you had to enter your credit card there.

    At some step of the process you are setting up your software to accomodate your downloading of bit torrents. I know that many such programs require that you also have files that can be uploaded so that you aren’t considered a leech. So therefore you have to upload files and then share band with with people downloading said files.
    So how is that different then entering your credit card information ONCE and then saying whether you want or don’t want to have email sent to you? No matter what you do you will spend time configuring the delivery of your content. Such configuration is still easier on iTunes.

    Again, the ONLY thing you are really arguing is you don’t want to pay for content even though the content is for sale. Not a technical argument at all.

  • How many people have to pay 9.95 a month to Netflix so that Iris can get House of Cards for free if he/she wants to contribute to the cultural conversation?

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