Is piracy actually helping Hollywood?

The American government spends a lot of time trying to tackle piracy. At home, it has worked closely with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to identify and prosecute people who have been illegally downloading movies and TV shows and, abroad, it has been using its diplomatic clout to encourage foreign governments to do the same. In the negotiations for the huge Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty, intellectual property rights is one of the biggest drums that America is beating. It wants to see enforcement strengthened.

Is piracy actually helping Hollywood?

In China, the US consulate has even hosted short film making competitions for young Chinese people, challenging them to make films showing the ill-effects of movie piracy in order to raise awareness of the importance of intellectual property. For the then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, under whose auspices the competition took place, there is no division between global economics and international diplomacy.


Piracy, of course, is a huge deal – especially in places like China. It’s tricky to find any specific figures but, according to one study by the consulting firm LEK, the “piracy rate” over there was as high as 90%. That means an estimated 90% of potential revenue in the market has been lost due to bootlegs and downloads. In Russia, it is as high as 79%. For all intents and purposes, pirated content is near ubiquitous in China, as it is in many other countries.

This is no doubt bad for the Hollywood movie studios and the people who produce content who want to be paid for their graft, but is this the most important thing we should be worrying about? I want to challenge the conventional wisdom and ask: could piracy actually be a good thing, because of the benefits it brings to international diplomacy?

Soft power

”International relations is not just a game of who has the most fighter jets or nuclear weapons: so-called “soft power” is also crucially important.”

International relations is tricky business, and it is within the interests of every country to maximise its influence around the world – so it has more clout when negotiating, and more legitimacy when pursuing its own interests. But international relations is not just a game of who has the most fighter jets or nuclear weapons: so-called “soft power” is also crucially important. This is how scholars describe the complex mixture of economic and cultural influence that can beef up a country’s standing on the world stage.


Policy advisor and academic Simon Anholt, who specialises in cultural relations between countries, explained to me that “making a cultural impact matters is because, according to all my research, if people perceive that your country has a rich culture (and that can mean cultural heritage in the UNESCO sense, or cultural production, whether “high” culture or “popular” culture, or both at the same time), then they are measurably more likely to admire and respect your country and desire to engage with it in some way. And that liking/admiration translates into more tourism, foreign direct investment, trade, diplomacy, major events, productive migration in both directions, and more cultural relations.”

In other words, whilst it might sound fluffier than the business of tanks and bombs, culture matters.

Traditionally, diplomacy has taken place between the elites of different countries: presidents talking to other presidents, ambassadors hosting prime ministers, and so on. However, “public diplomacy” is becoming increasingly important. This is when a state doesn’t just try to negotiate with politicians, but instead appeals directly to the people of a foreign country.


The idea is that, by engaging directly with foreign populations, they can influence the mood of the people who are implicitly keeping the elites in power (whether in a democracy through elections, or in a dictatorship by not being motivated to rise up and depose those in power). In other words, if America can persuade the populations of countries that perhaps have hostile (or potentially hostile) governments that the American worldview is the best, then it will both undermine governments that reject that worldview and bolster support for American efforts to affect change in America’s favour.

Hollywood diplomacy

For America, Hollywood movies and TV shows are a huge part of this effort. President Obama has said as much himself. In 2013, he told an audience at Dreamworks Animation that: “Believe it or not, entertainment is part of our American diplomacy”. This isn’t hard to believe – and foreign governments know it too, which is why censorship in some of the world’s dodgiest regimes is rife.russian-propaganda-statue-liberty-crop

“Germans having easy access to West German TV was the “final nail in the coffin” for the East German regime.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon. When trying to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is often claimed that exposure to Western content helped push that process along. DW reckons that East Germans having easy access to West German TV was the “final nail in the coffin” for the East German regime. It quotes Dr Jochen Staadt from Berlin’s Freie Universität:

“To those who were unable to leave the country, the constant awareness of this parallel world and the information on world affairs provided by TV, which was at odds with the propaganda peddled by East German media, were the reasons why the events of 1989 came about.”

Although watching West German TV didn’t require any blank DVDs or BitTorrent downloads, it was essentially the same phenomenon as we have today: the unauthorised viewing of copyrighted material.

In the old Soviet Union, as early as the 1950s, x-ray film was being used to pirate Western records by the likes of The Beatles. By the end of the Cold War, unauthorised screenings of Western content were so rife that, in 1991 when the Eastern Bloc was collapsing, the American entertainment industry called for the Soviets to clamp down on piracy. With an astonishing lack of self-awareness, Jack Valenti, who at the time was President of the MPAA, asked the Soviets to use their police force and courts (the institutions that had been responsible for decades of terror and oppression) to prosecute Russians who dared watch western films.


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