Though it might’ve been a different story pre-pandemic, now it’s not.
Think back to the time when you first got the internet and made use of the torrent sites to convert the YouTube video of Lady Gaga’s Paparazzi into an MP3 to download on your iPod Nano. Or maybe it was Rihanna’s Shut Up and Drive – either way, pirating was a very common practice in the 2000s and 2010s, especially amongst teenagers without an income to legally pay for music. Even if you did consider the financial stability of artists, you probably thought that famous singers were rich enough to be able to take the hit of illegal streaming.
Anyway, making a copy of a piece of media (which is, essentially, what pirating is) and watching or listening to it isn’t exactly stealing, is it? At least, not in the same way as stealing a KitKat or the Mona Lisa. But times are very different now. As the pandemic has had a massive hit on creators, particularly musicians, we need to have a conversation about whether it is ethical to freely consume media.
As you click “download now” on a pirated copy of Cats (2019), risking your computer’s health in the process, it’s difficult to think of the film industry losses of $20.5bn every year (according to one estimate). You might think this is yet another modern-day by-product of the internet, but piracy is more than just that – it is a movement in itself, with a long history. Proponents of the “Free Culture” movement, which began in the 1960s, believed that copyright laws were too restrictive and prevented people from freely accessing and sharing artistic creations. They say that big corporations, like established film studios, are the only ones who lose out. It even has a political party: Pirate Party UK has radical policies that include greater freedom of expression laws and reduced surveillance. A commonly cited argument in favour of piracy is that many people can’t afford to pay for individual films; it seems difficult to argue against the principle that everyone should be able to access culture and media, without financial barriers.
Whilst this argument is reasonable, the reality is that piracy has a huge financial impact on the film industry, with the pandemic creating a fully-fledged crisis. The effects are multifold: movie studios have been unable to produce for the past eight months, film festivals have been cancelled en masse, and the recent Cineworld closures alerted everyone to the seriousness of the problem. It seems like any more financial losses to piracy would be the final nail in the coffin for the traditional cinema industry. Whilst Netflix subscriptions are up, this does not signal the end of the piracy problem: over the past few years, illegal websites have been renovating their interface and improving their user experience, with sites like Popcorn Time rivalling the most popular streaming services.
The music and film industries are facing a crisis – but before you pin the blame on Covid-19 and torrent sites, there is another lurking problem. As I write this article, I am consuming hours of music through the free audio-streaming app, Spotify. Whilst it is perfectly legal to listen to your favourite tunes on the Swedish app, it has come under fire from many artists for having an unfair business model. The data is inconclusive, but artists can generally expect to earn up to $0.0084 per stream, which translates to $4.37 per 1000 streams. Before the pandemic, there were ways to get around this: musicians were usually able to generate other streams of income, but now that the option of playing live shows is out of the question, most artists rely on the minuscule earnings from streaming services.
Compared to Spotify, piracy doesn’t look that bad! Whether media is consumed legally or illegally, it doesn’t make a huge difference to the finances of creators, and the government certainly isn’t coming to the rescue. In the current climate, it doesn’t look morally justifiable to stream a torrented film and refuse to pay for music when you consider the livelihoods at stake. For now, at least, the best we can do is to support creators in other ways, and hope that the creative industries can survive through this time.