Tuesday, February 01, 2011

You're Not Zorro

I vow to abstain from taking things not given.

Here is a thought experiment. Let's imagine a science-fiction scenario in which you have an invention that can instantly make a tangible copy of any object. You point your little machine at a cup of cappucino and poof! it produces a cup of cappucino you can drink and everything.

You take your gizmo to your local cafe, order up a cappucino, and when the guy puts it on the counter, before you pay, you point your machine. Poof! An identical cup of cappucino appears. You then grasp your copy and tell the guy behind the counter, "Never mind, thanks. I have my own." And you walk away.

Here's the question: are you stealing?

Yesterday, I heard a stock defense by a character who felt that pirating movies, or "ripping" them by making a copy of a movie which is then distributed for free, is not stealing. His defense was that if he distributes a copy (never mind the fact that this is illegal) of my movie, he never stole an actual product -- he made a copy of it. Furthermore, he did not deprive me of any revenue by doing this -- he only robbed me of potential revenue, which was never mine to begin with.

To make it worse, he declared that piracy is a compliment. I should be pleased. Hey, baby, I know you didn't give your consent, but cheer up -- you weren't half bad.

This is the mindset of a lot of people who use modern media. The ease with which you can copy and distribute movies and music is accompanied by a sense of entitlement. If people consider the consequence at all, they assume they are only stealing pennies from a giant corporation. Hey, I'm Zorro! I'm sticking it to the man.

Mmmm, sorry. No eres el Zorro, maricon.

Getting back to the cappucino thought experiment above. Your intent was to enjoy a cappucino for free. You employed your magical technology for just that purpose. To get your capp, you had to go to a place of business and order a cappucino. Someone used their skills, some ingredients, and energy to produce a cappucino thinking you were going to be honest and pay for it. You then made a copy of what she made for you, and walked away with that, leaving her with a cappucino that is now getting cold and no compensation. One can argue that this hits the employer, not her. But we live in a capitalist structure where she depends on her pay and perhaps on tips (which you also did not leave). If everyone gave themselves the right to do what you did, the place could not stay in business and she'd be out of work.

Actors frequently "invest" work without compensation as a means of getting exposure. Two of my three movies were made on very low budgets as independent ventures, and I "invested" by acting in them without compensation up front. My pay is based on people paying to see the movie. One of those movies became quite popular as an illegal download, which cut into my pay. So I view piracy as theft from artists. It is taking something not given, and here we are not only referring to money, but to the dignity of artists as workers.


Petteri Sulonen said...

The system stinks, though.

I don't pirate, for that precise reason. But I would dearly want to see a system that's not based on the notion of intellectual property. I'm fortunate enough to have a day job that pays the bills, which is why I put whatever little I create under Creative Commons.

Nathan said...

This is a tricky issue I think. On the one hand, you're totally right that artists are getting screwed constantly by this kind of behavior. And so many people running organizations like movie studios, magazines, companies selling copies of art as "products," etc. expect those of us making the original, or giving our all in a performance, to do it for nothing, or next to nothing. (Like all those people playing at coffee houses for beans.)In this way, pirating is just another layer on top of a system and set of thought processes that offer little support for artists.

On the other hand, when a "product" is controlled by a large corporation, and artists are only getting "trickle down" chump change, what's the appropriate response? Obviously, that chump change can add up, or be greatly diminished by people stealing copies, but the fact still remains that the gatekeeper capitalists are raking in the big bucks on someone else's talent and skills.

The whole structure can be viewed as a form of taking what's not given, because often artists and writers - if they want to get their work out - enter into contracts that they wouldn't if a more just system was in place.

For example, the level of excitement about the article I was writing for Tricycle magazine from the editors, as well as the payment they were going to offer for it, didn't match what came after I turned in the work. Instead of coming back, and offering ways to change the article, it got "lost," sat for three months, and then I had to pester multiple folks about the status of the article. When someone finally got back to me, they said I could rewrite it, but didn't really tell me what was wrong with the first draft. So, I took a different approach to the article, and ended up getting a "kill fee" with the explanation that I could have used two months earlier to write a publishable article. In the end, Trike got to read what people thought about online practice, made some tweaks in their web presence, and payed me 1/5 of what I would have received if they had published the article.

This kind of game happens all the time in the writing world, and I know it happens elsewhere as well.

So, I'm torn about this issue. Because it seems that leaning on the side of viewing these actions you speak of as piracy feels correct, but it also does nothing to change the shitty system many of us are struggling under.

quid said...

I don't pirate, and I think this ethically tainted practice has led to the demise of many entertainment channels in this country.


Algernon said...

Yes, crappy system. And the criticism about "intellectual property" is well founded. I would like to find a different way to protect artists from getting fleeced but admit I don't know what that different way is. Which is why I didn't get into that.

This has to do with intention and how some consumers steal without admitting to themselves that they are stealing.

Petteri Sulonen said...

I think we're thinking of social change here, rather than just another clever method of monetizing your creativity. There were artists before there was the notion of intellectual property; that only came up with the printing press and only applied to writing to start with. Recording media made it possible for a very few artists to get immensely rich, and a somewhat larger group to eke out a living selling recordings, whether it's sound or image. Now that digital copying has made the artifact of a recording valueless, something else will have to emerge. What? Dunno, but I think it has to do with individually crafted stuff and meatspace experiences again. Who knows, maybe theater will make a comeback in some form.

I'm keen on opera myself. I've been to a couple of live-streamed hi-def performances from the New York Met at a movie theater, and they're nothing like actually attending one.

But yeah, piracy is still wrong. And it pisses me off that I'm forced to watch several minutes of intentionally irritating video to remind me of that every time I pop in a DVD I bought, when I could torrent the same stuff and not have to watch it. That's wrong too. Also futile.

Adam said...

I think the real question is what do I own when I buy that cappuccino. If your magic machine can then remember cappucino's and put them out at will (so you have to buy the first one) is it stealing to buy one, and then start making your own? What if they are only for personal use? What if I want to re-sell them?