Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow: A Reaction In Several Parts. Part Two

I recommend reading Part One, if you haven’t already, to get a solid idea of where I’m coming from. Part One basically deals with property issues, in which I assert that intellectual property ought to be paid for.

I want to go a little deeper into issues of paying for content here.

Trent is poor, from the start of the book up through to the end. He never has a job or any steady source of income other than occasionally panhandling (it should be noted that at no point does Trent look for a job; nor is there ever a conversation about why he cannot/will not work). However, twice during the story, Trent needs to call a cab to get loved ones out of a tough spot. These cab rides cost approximately thirty pounds, and Trent has just enough cash both times to cover the fare. The fact that Trent has enough money when he really needs it undermines the entire premise of one Trent’s core piracy defenses: the cost of content.

The story never establishes the cost of content in Trent’s world. But we’ve established that Trent, if he really wants, can have thirty pounds in his pocket at any given time. Near the end of the book, Trent and a sympathetic member of Parliament are discussing solutions to piracy, and the MP suggests a subscription service – unlimited content for fifteen pounds a month. Trent agrees this is a very reasonable price. Currently, fifteen British pounds is equal to approximately $28.68 in US currency.

Game of Thrones episodes can currently be purchased from Google Play for $2.99 apiece, or the entirety of Season 3 (ten episodes) plus a few extras for $28.99. Other shows are even cheaper – I’ve been buying episodes of Once Upon a Time for $1.99 apiece (don’t judge me). Or I could get the entire 22-episode run of Season 3 for $35.99. Or just binge-watch all three seasons currently on Netflix for $7.99 a month. I’ve spent probably $150 on Dragon Age games… but according to my time counter and some arithmetic, I’ve paid approximately a penny and a half per hour of play time. If I went out to the movies as often as I play Dragon Age, I’d have spent nearly eight thousand dollars on movie tickets.

Pirate Cinema came out in 2012; well after services such as Netflix, Google Play, Amazon Prime, Steam, Spotify and GameFly each became popular.

And so, the question I cannot help but ask myself: why can’t Trent spend fifteen pounds a month on collecting the content he wants? Sure, it won’t be unlimited content – but there are only so many hours in the day one can consume content (my truly impressive total-hours for Dragon Age comes from several years of dedicated fandom).

The answer Trent comes back with is that his Scot Colford films aren’t just for entertainment – they’re raw footage he uses to make his remixes.

Point the first: Season Three of Game of Thrones was pirated nearly six million times. I sincerely doubt that even one million of those downloads were artists looking for raw footage.

Point the second: I find myself angrier at Trent’s justification than at someone who simply wants to be able to keep up with conversations about Tyrion and Cersei at the office on Monday.

Artists have a rough enough time getting respect from non-artists (I direct you to the Fuck You Pay Me links I highlighted in Part One), so an artist disrespecting someone else’s work and creativity becomes even worse. If you respect an artist and love their work so much that you are inspired to create your own remix (or fan fiction or tribute video or cover song or other such endeavor), pay for it. By paying for content, you acknowledge that this work has value. A painter isn’t allowed to simply walk into an art supply store and walk off with as many tubes of cerulean paint as he wishes; a musician can’t take the sheet music she wants off the shelf without paying.

One might argue that paint and sheet music are physical goods while digital content is free to copy.

To that, I will respond: Game of Thrones costs, on average, six million dollars per episode to make. Mad Men, a show with minimal special effects but nevertheless complex costumes and sets, costs a little over two million dollars to make. I couldn’t find specific stats for Dragon Age, but according to this Kotaku article, most AAA digital games cost upwards of $40 million to make, sometimes significantly more for an MMO. That’s a lot of artists, all of whom deserve to get paid for their work (as well as a small army of programmers, marketing agents, community managers and project directors who also deserve to get paid). And if these folks don’t get paid, if the studio isn’t making enough to turn a profit, they’ll shut down. There will be no more AAA digital games, no more Game of Thrones, no more Mad Men, if everyone feels entitled to steal the content they ‘love’.

And then there will be no more remixes. The art of film will be reduced to people making phone-camera movies and putting them up on YouTube. The actors will be as skilled as your most outgoing friend, the costumes will be whatever people could dig out of their closets, and the script writing will be minimal. To say nothing of lighting, sound, color correction, and the thousand and one things most people don’t realizing go into making a movie look good. Even The Guild cost a lot of money to make. And I don’t have anything against productions like these – I’m glad they exist, they’re awesome and wonderful. But I want them to exist alongside Game of Thrones and Mad Men.

It doesn’t matter if the studio is (in your estimation) ‘rich enough’. Think it’s okay to steal from Warner Music because they aren’t paying their artists royalties? That’s a legitimate beef, and it makes me angry too, but the solution to that problem is to buy music directly from the artists or find good musicians not attached to the label. Stealing a copy of Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey because you plan to spork it and don’t want to give the author money? That’s not cool, either – if you’re using someone else’s work for your own, and they haven’t given it to you for free, pay for it. If you respect something enough to criticize it, or remix it, or cover it, pay for it (or check it out from the library, or obtain it through a legal streaming service, or some other legal method of obtaining content).

And for the final point I’ve seen floated in Trent’s defense of piracy: Trent isn’t making any money from his remixes. To which I respond: he should be. If his work really is as beloved and popular as the book portrays them, then, yes, he should be getting paid by an entertained and grateful audience. No, he shouldn’t be bootlegging his favorite Colford movies. But remixes are transformative works, and artists, even transformative ones, deserve to get paid. And perhaps if Trent got paid for his remixes, he could afford to legally purchase more content and therefore make more remixes.

In summation: if you love the content you’re consuming, and especially if you respond to this content as a transformative artist, pay for it.