I'm A Blatant and Unapologetic Media Pirate

If something exists digitally, I have probably at least tried to obtain it illegally.

Feb 5, 2013 at 2:00pm | Leave a comment

I've been on both sides of media piracy. I've depended on income from media I created and sold myself, but have also illegally downloaded music since the days of Altavista's mp3 search feature.

The very language of "piracy" is hyperbolic. But it sounds way cooler than "illegal downloading" or "copyright infringement" so instead of interrogating the rhetoric, I'm going to just go with it.

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If something exists digitally, I have probably at least tried to obtain it illegally. I pirate software, TV shows, movies, music and books. I even illegally streamed live sports for a couple years. I consume a LOT of digital media -- far more than I could ever afford to pay for. The artists, producers or distributors I refer to in this piece work in a broad variety of mediums.

I attempt to make up for my piratical activities when I can, and I'm not the only one. Recent studies show that people who regularly download music illegally also purchase about 30 percent more music legally than their peers. The American Assembly, a public affairs forum and affiliate of Columbia University, sums up their research:

Our data [are] quite clear on this point and line up with numerous other studies: The biggest music pirates are also the biggest spenders on recorded music.

This reflects my own anecdotal experience. And I try to be conscious of where I do spend my money. I try not to steal from small or independent producers. I'm pretty sure that my $15 disposable income will go further supporting Courtney Milan, a self-published romance novelist, than it will buying the Taylor Swift album I listen to while reading it.

I realize that's an imperfect justification, but the stakes of piracy can vary widely. Stealing from a multi-million dollar company? Frankly, I don’t care. Stealing from someone personally? That's a dick move.

Aside from money I spend directly on media, I also make conscious efforts to support artists in other ways. For example, I buy tickets to live performances, T-shirts and other merchandise. That's money I largely would not spend without discovering artists through acts of piracy by myself or my friends. I encourage fellow pirates to show similar support when possible.

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These principles apply to porny media too! If you see a performer you like, go find their website. Many sex workers have options to buy something directly from them, leave a tip or buy something from a wishlist for presents.

Support doesn't have to be solely monetary either. Those band shirts are also advertisements. I talk about what I'm reading, watching or listening to on social media. And I make mix CDs with complex liner notes for many people in my life, or share playlists when I'm lazier. Word of mouth can be a powerful form of marketing, and something we can all engage with more consciously.

None of these are new ideas. These arguments come up cyclically with the development of new technology, and echo arguments that surrounded developments of radio, cassette recorders, and VCRs for example. For those interested in learning more about media history I highly recommend "The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires" by Tim Wu. He deftly situates contemporary media in larger contexts of history, politics, and capitalism.

The economies around the income of artists and performers are far more complex than whether or not consumers obtain media through legal channels. Artists generally make more money from ticket sales or merchandise than the media they produce. This is especially important to remember when companies talk about the cost of piracy to performers. They could alleviate some of those costs by changing their structures to better compensate artists they work with.

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Shifting the responsibility of artists' incomes onto the consumer is a deliberate misrepresentation of the actual economic relationship. One only has to revisit the VH1 Behind the Music episode about TLC to see how a group with multi-platinum albums can still go bankrupt as a result of bad contracts.

Issues of fair labor apply to every industry. Media companies cannot exempt themselves from a labor analysis because they lose a fraction of their profits to theft any more than retail industries can.

As a producer, I watermarked my website onto everything, so even stolen media was branded. And I never counted the money I lost, but rather focused on increasing profits overall. I found that it not only reduced my stress about piracy, but helped me reexamine my own behavior as a consumer.

Obviously not all performers feel the same. Artists' anger and resentment towards piracy as theft of their work is legitimate, and needs to be respected. But I suspect that negativity could at least be mitigated if they made fairer wages for their work from the start.

Media piracy is deeply embedded in our consumer culture at this point, especially youth culture. We need a better response than criminalization and warning messages on billboards and before movies. Industries need to change their models of production, distribution, and compensation.

How do you feel? Are you on board the pirate ship or a law abiding media consumer?