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July, 2020

With the Coronavirus threatening (or promising) to impact the existing entanglements of people, information, networks, capital and technology, the engendered reconfigurations are bound to change the way people work and live, and consequently consume and experience media. ‘Globally, average daily torrent downloads from January to February [in 2020] increased significantly by 36 per cent’, this news article in The Independent quotes data published by Muso, a firm that ‘collects data from billions of piracy infringements every day to help entertainment companies and rights owners see a bigger picture’ (Muso 2020). In another article published in the Forbes, the CEO of Muso, commenting on the rise in digital piracy states that:

‘When the everyday person is struggling just to get by, an illegal stream here or there does not register as theft — more little guy against the big guys. And right now, in the face of a lethal pandemic, who doesn’t feel like the little guy?’ (Chatterley 2020).

This dispels any doubts one may have on the continued relevance of media piracy as an area of research for anthropologists. An analysis of the ‘billions of piracy infringements everyday’ (Muso 2020) is incomplete without a study of the particular, the little guy and his lived experience of the everyday. In this essay, I examine select anthropological literature in the area of media piracy, which has laid a charter for recasting of the research from ‘what [media] piracy is to what it does’ (Liang 2010), that is, to understand piracy through varied lines of ethnographic enquiry — as a mode that manifests in shifting infrastructures and materialities, as a lived experience of negotiating access to global flows and modernity, as a culture that functions to meet specific social (and economic) needs, and as a construct that reveals the nebulous boundaries between legality and illegality. As a reflection on these anthropological contributions, I bring in examples from my own lived experiences of growing up in the ‘pirate urbanism’ (Sundaram 2010) of East Delhi.

Shifting infrastructures and unstable materialities: An ontological perspective

In the book, A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari illuminate the continuous reterritorialization of assemblages. The rhizomatic assemblages connect multiplicities of concurrent semiotic, material and social flows, that are bound to reconfigure and reconnect with other multiplicities. A line of flight that contests the apparent fixedness of an assemblage, causes it to deterritorialize and form new connections. Ravi Sundaram (2010) alludes that studies of media piracy have been anchored on this concept, with pirate economies as ‘dynamic localities of legal, social and aesthetic assemblages (Larkin 2007) that are susceptible to ‘expansion, mutation, breakdown, [and] reterritorialization’ (Sundaram 2010). Media piracy networks can be viewed as assemblages in themselves, but also as lines of flight existing on the periphery of incumbent legal media forms. As non-linear networks, they create the potentialities for creativity and disruption, and thus, transform the ‘ostensible fixed internal structure’ of legal media networks (Sundaram 2010). The becoming-pirate of the media is what propels it forward in the direction of new forms and materialities.

Brian Larkin, in his research on the video industry in Nigeria, seeks to examine piracy as a technical assemblage. He argues that illicit piracy facilitates infrastructures, the ‘structural preconditions’ (Larkin 2007) for new forms of media that, in turn, lend a voice to local cultural practices and social realities. Importantly, he highlights the failure of the state modernist project of urban infrastructure that serves as the undercurrent for the pirate claims to modernity. As I will expound later in the essay, a similar dialectic between the urban experience and ‘culture of the copy’ is advanced by Sundaram in his study of ‘pirate modernity’ in the city of Delhi (2010). Larkin advances that Nigeria witnessed the descent of state promises of networked electricity into the everyday of autonomous generators powered by petrol purchased from the black market (2007). Following a similar trajectory, the flows of media in the urban forged a mode of circulation and replication. The acts of piracy, then, need to be viewed from the perspective of their role in yielding new ‘forms of sociability, aesthetic production, and economic organization that mark urban life’ (2007).

Larkin posits that piracy has also generated new materialities in the form of Nigerian film videos. The pirate infrastructure that brought Indian film videos to Nigeria was backed by capital inflows, complex organizational structures and technical capabilities. With this infrastructure in place, networks of reproduction were created for local media to ride on. New media content emerged, with the storylines of Indian movies adapted and made culturally contextual. These were full length Nigerian films, shot and distributed in English, Yoruba, and Hausa languages. In this manner, we see that piracy lays the ground for legal media forms, and yet again blurs the boundaries between legality and illegality. The human actors in this assemblage, the dealers, cross these boundaries as well — as they started profiting from legal forms of local media. Larkin states that with piracy as a prerequisite condition, Hausa-language video films became prominent ‘across millions of Hausa in northern Nigeria, Cameroon, and Ghana by drawing on the long-standing popularity of Indian films in Nigeria’ (Larkin 2007). It is evident that the shadow economy not only served the needs of the consumers, but also provided the producers of media access to new markets. In his study of the Indian film industry, Adrian Athique (2008) advanced a similar view that it was piracy that gave the disorganized industry access to new export markets over the 1990s, and the habitual movie consumers in these new geographies subsequently became the audience for the legitimate theatrical exhibition market that emerged in the 2000s. In Nigeria, piracy also aided the archiving practice, where bespoke cassettes, used to curate rare Hindi film music and traditional Hausa music, spawned new music forms such as Bandiri, with eulogies to Prophet Mohammed set to the tune of Hindi film songs.

Another important aspect of this technical assemblage is outlined in Larkin’s emphasis on the link between spatiality and sociability. The rise of video piracy in Nigeria was concomitant with the mushrooming of neighbourhood video parlours. It was yet another claim to access to modernity. With the public spaces of cinema halls in Nigeria being inaccessible for women on account of societal and religious diktats, the video parlours ensconced in the safety of the neighbourhoods provided a safe haven. In this manner, we see that the private and public, desire and power, the everyday and fabricated modernity, the legal and illegal — they all converge at and invoke the same nebulous boundaries. I argue that an ontological understanding of media piracy entails a probe into these differences, or the constitutive legal, social and cultural relations that make up and shift these identities.

Pirate Modernity: The phenomenology of everyday informality

In the Introduction to his book, Pirate Modernity: Delhi’s Media Urbanism, Ravi Sundaram (2010) celebrates piracy as the ‘contagion of the ordinary’ that does not resist the discourses of power, but revels in its cracks and gaps. With Delhi as his site, Sundaram comments on the failure of the grand project of developmental modernism in postcolonial India. The resultant urban crisis created a geography of centrality and marginality, a categorical difference between citizens and populations. In response to the ‘technological sublime of the planner imaginary’ of Lutyens’ Delhi, emerged a fragmented urban sprawl mediated by informal non-legal actors — ‘the urban poor, small businesses and local markets, affluent house owners wanting to expand private space beyond legal norms, and, of course, private builders and contractors’ (Sundaram 2007: 53).

Since then, the focus has shifted from the urban centrality in Delhi to the elite enclaves in South Delhi and suburb of Gurgaon. The infrastructure has risen tall; out of global network flows of service subcontracting firms, offshore captives, financial investments and information technology. However, the difference between centrality and marginality has become starker, with these generic global urban nonplaces upheld by the ‘increasingly disfranchised low-end workforce …[that]… provide services and backup’ (Sassen, as quoted by Sundaram 2007: 53). Piracy culture targets this peripheral urban world of disorder and insubordination. It provides a space for the subaltern to access and participate in desired forms of commodified global urban experiences. Sundaram classifies piracy as a culture of the copy, that has become a mode of replication of low-cost technological infrastructure. It includes not only immaterial media goods, but also the grey markets of unbranded and counterfeit commodities. Sundaram argues that piracy is not just a parasitic attachment to urban infrastructures as outlined by Larkin (2004), but, in fact, expanded the urban infrastructure in Delhi. It is transformative, and not replicative, as each reproduction of media expands the phenomenological experience and blurs the boundaries between technology and culture. Thus, new forms of media in the form of ‘cultural products, cassettes, CDs, MP3s, VCDs, cable television, grey-market computers, cheap Chinese audio and video players, thousands of cheap print flyers, and signage’…are created that unnerve the privileged globalizing elite and ‘threaten the neat broadband flows of information, labour, culture and capital’ (Liang 2010) . This recycled modernity, when considered in the context of the everyday, underpins the mere survival of a population, ever excluded by the evolving projects of global/national modernity and citizenship. When I look back at the everyday of my childhood in East Delhi in the 1990s and early 2000s, the preponderance and immanence of illegality was a given; it was never discussed or evaluated within the day to day frames of societal morals or ethics. This urban experience was mirrored in the phenomenology of media. The screening of the latest Hindi movie on our cable television channel was our negotiated access to new content, that was otherwise only screened at distant and expensive multiplexes. We embraced the media copy that was available to us, with its jumpy frames and kitschy warning messages crawling in and out of the screen. When piracy was the only conduit through which the vast majority of Delhi’s population met its aspirations to partake in the flows of modernity, then the question of legality and illegality escaped attention and debate in the ordinariness of everyday.

Antipiracy as discourses of power/knowledge

If pirated media forms are to be considered as matter out of place, then the immanent questions are — What is that place itself? And who defines its boundaries? Let us dwell a bit more on this concept of material impurity by shifting the field of inquiry to the suburbs of Brazil. In his ethnography on the enforcement of antipiracy laws, Alexander Dent ties in the ‘anthropologies of mediation and Intellectual Property’ (2016). He puts forward an investigation of the ideologies of material purity in Brazil and related historicities to better understand discourses of global intellectual property (IP) policing. Dent traces the shifts in distribution of pirated media from visible street markets to residential neighbourhoods and urban peripheries, and the implications thereof for the ‘police, pro–intellectual property (IP) activists, and informal-economy workers and consumers in southern Brazil’ (2016). IP maximalists argue for the primacy of authorship of the media objects as much as the authorised paths that materialize as copyrights, patents, trademarks and brands. With advances in digital technology, pirated media reproduces signals of the same fidelity and quality as of the original texts. The governments and corporates address these anxieties around noise free reproduction of digital textuality by integrating discourses of material purity and historical authenticity to lend credence to the licit forms. Unauthorized use or illegitimate materialization of media is treated as dirt from the street, as matter that has no place (Douglas 2003) in a clean and orderly Brazilian house. Another aspect of digital media is the virginity or blankness of its form that can be stamped and converted into any movie or record. This characteristic is translated as the promiscuity of the pirated media. Forms that were once virginal are now burned and hence, need to be regarded as bad materializations. These manufactured binaries of individualized legitimate goods and homogenized illegitimate pirated copies, become Foucauldian discourses of power that contain and repress the subjectivity that Brazilians may have in choosing open models and solutions that work for them. Hence, we can see, as Arjun Appadurai argued, that the global flows [of IP in this case] are rendered effective only when rewritten and domesticated according to the ‘imperatives of appropriation that define local contexts’ (1996). It is also important to note that such local appropriations may also get interpreted as transnational rhetoric, as another form of power/ knowledge. Barbara Klinger questions these discourses of power in her interesting ethnography on the reception of James Cameron’s magnum opus, the Titanic. The pirated copies of the movie were smuggled into Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001. The illegal forms of distribution meant that the film, as a contraband object, entered a socio-political field of taboos and punishment. It was not the nature of its circulation, but the content that was outlawed under the Sharia laws. The film was stealthily watched by many and inspired DiCaprio haircuts and Titanic T-shirts. In this manner, the consumption of the pirated media became a conduit ‘for “semiotic guerrilla warfare” through taste and style’ (Klinger 2010: 118). This reception was reported by the US media as indicative of ‘the therapeutic role that US mass media and the “American way” play in contexts of [local] social and political repression’ (Klinger 2010: 119). Klinger underlines that this rhetoric of non-Western audiences’ ‘longing for Western popular culture’ is a subversive exercise in imperialist hegemony.

Thus, in these ethnographies by Dent and Klinger, we see that the specificity and agency of pirated media consumption is discouraged by linking the usage to convenient local contexts (of material impurity in Brazil) or by misappropriating its contested meaning (as we see in Afghanistan) to perpetuate a rhetoric in favour of political control and dominance.


Subsequent to the ethnographic studies quoted in this essay, media forms have evolved from digital objects, to on-demand movie and music platforms including Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple, Spotify. On the face of it, since the introduction of these streaming services, a consumer has had unfettered access to music and movies, which made erstwhile peer-to-peer sharing or other pirated media forms redundant. However, with the existing lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, digital piracy has returned with a vengeance, with film piracy in the last week of March 2020 registering a month-on-month increase of ‘41% in the USA, 43% in the UK, 50% in Spain, 62% in India and … 66% in Italy’ (Muso 2020). To understand this resurgence, I pivot back to the anthropological studies on piracy that have directed a focus on what piracy does. With the demand for online media amplifying under the lockdown, individuals are forced to sift relevant content across multiple fragmented platforms. Over a short period of time, these platforms have expanded their business models and are producing their own Original content as a direct competition to the movie and television studios. With an ever increasing share of platform produced content being pushed to the audience, piracy enters the frame again as an infrastructure that is meeting the specific needs of the media consumers by allowing them access (and payment gateways) to the content they desire. Media piracy has now taken the shape of apps such as the Popcorn Time, that have made a comeback during the pandemic by ‘offering users a free but illegal way to watch streams and torrents of films and TV shows’ (The Independent 2020).

As I see it, there is a double becoming at play here, of piracy as the wasp and media as the orchid. The becoming of piracy entails a replication of legal media forms as they evolve, from cassettes to discs to MP3s to on-demand streaming apps. Piracy, in its recent avatar of Popcorn Time, has once again ‘captured the code’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987) and replicated desired features of on-demand platforms such as child-friendly modes. In turn, we can also predict the continued becoming of the media as it gets reterritorialized by piracy. In the same manner in which an illegal Napster inspired a legal Spotify by creating new markets and user experiences (Kopf 2019). Legal media is always forced to follow and keep pace with the creativity that piracy embraces in meeting individual needs. I argue that an anthropology of media piracy is also an anthropology of creativity, innovation, desire and negotiation resulting from the agency that piracy provides to the little guy (or girl) in the everyday.


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Gitika Saksena

Design Thinking SME with 15+ years of experience in leading design of talent management and analytics, employee experience strategies as well as large scale change & project management initiatives. Previously worked with Accenture Technology India. 2019 Chevening Scholar. MA Social Anthropology from SOAS University of London. PGDBM from XIM Bhubaneswar, Economics (Honours) from Lady Shri Ram, Delhi University.

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