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.”

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