That Piracy Thing

Photograph courtesy of Parag Sanke and licensed under the Creative Commons.

Bollywood is part of India’s cultural DNA and also one of the most corrupt places in the country. Black money flows into production houses like oil to churn out television, film and music. And despite running a world class money-laundering operation — and record profits year after year — Bollywood thinks there’s a problem, although not its own criminality. And that problem is torrenting and online piracy. Bollywood, that’s like the pot calling the kettle black.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same). Copyright has always been a serious issue in India and at the same time, it’s dealt with practically and with a certain amount of elasticity. Students have been violating copyright law as long as there have been photocopiers. Whether it was because they couldn’t afford the books, or the texts were not widely available, students formed one of the largest cohorts of pirates in India. Several generations have studied, graduated and become contributing members of society. Nothing flew off the rails as a result. Quite the opposite. The economy continues to grow.

Which brings us to the present day. The means of piracy has largely shifted from the analogue to the digital. Files of every kind are traded, shared and copied online. Much of this content is copyrighted, thus pirated. Film production houses are outraged and have claimed spectacular losses. One prominent producer has gone so far as equating support of online piracy withendorsing terrorism. Bollywood and exaggeration go hand in hand.

Recent legal notices on blocked torrent links are equally bizarre. Now if one even views a proscribed URL — let alone attempts a download — the courts threaten a three year jail sentence and Rs three lakh fine. What heinous threat to the nation does merely looking at a torrent link pose? Is this the same as child pornography?

Torrenting is a fact of life in India. It’s a way we all get stuff, rich and poor. The richer, more educated we are, the more we torrent. We have an abundance of access and privilege. Poor, less educated users: not so much. And whilst the letter of copyright law is one thing, the reality of online consumption is another. Study after study confirms that the internet’s most avid “pirates” also spend significantly more money on copyrighted content — whether films, music, games, or software — than consumers who purchase digital content through legal channels. But how is this possible?

The most avid pirates tend to be true fans. They have a voracious appetite for online entertainment, and influence their peers with critical opinions. And they delete as much as they download. There’s a lot of crap out there. Avid pirates also tend to be technically adept and can bypass all manner of network filtering. So it doesn’t matter what warning signals and legal threats might appear on the horizon. Pirates gonna pirate. The ones who aren’t already using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) and Tor will quickly adapt. Torrenting will continue apace, however, there will be casualties. These legal notices aren’t just showing up for fun. Eventually someone will be prosecuted, and dollars to donuts, it will be some poor person who just got a pre-paid smartphone connection. But let’s put a pin in that for the moment.

Not to get all Marxist about this, but it’s silly to talk about consumption without talking about the means of production. Whilst Bollywood’s money managers are still living back in the analogue and photocopier world, consumers have moved online. The internet has become the most disruptive technology in the Indian experience since the radio. It is something that everyone — and increasingly the poor — have access to. Lives are lived, experience and culture is shared, and often that sharing involves a great or mediocre song or film that someone wants to be paid for. If celebrity has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t get enough free publicity.

Which brings one back to the beginning. At the end of the day, Bollywood is about selling entertainment featuring celebrities. There is no greater medium in the history of communications to ensure that objective than the internet. Torrenting is just a technical means to make that happen. And it’s also a filtering agent. When anything can be reproduced at no cost, it is. The good, the bad, and the fugly. At the same time, content shows up wherever it’s intended to show up, it’s simultaneously being reviewed online. Draw some conclusions here.

But whether or not Bollywood decides that it wants to sue some poor bugger because they downloaded an “illegal” torrent will not matter one wit. The Indian internet will decide Bollywood’s future; not some bean counter humping it out in Mumbai. As Marshal McLuhan famously observed, The Medium Is The Message. This is India’s most compelling truth with reference to torrenting and piracy. It’s going to keep going on. That is the nature of the medium.

Pirates, yaar. Catch up, Bollywood.

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