Is piracy actually helping Hollywood?

Liberation through piracy

That’s the past, but what about the present? Could current Western content be used to undermine hostile governments and encourage people in “unfriendly” countries to be more supportive of a Western view? And what would be the role of specifically pirated content? I think it is reasonable to hypothesise that piracy could have a beneficial impact, as it accelerates the distribution of Western cultural materials in otherwise restricted societies.

“China only officially allows 34 foreign films to play in Chinese cinemas every year.”

“Official” distribution of cultural content can be difficult and is often mediated by governments. For example, China only officially allows 34 foreign films to play in Chinese cinemas every year and, even then, they have to be officially approved by the government. The answer, as hundreds of millions of Chinese people already know, is piracy.

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The Kevin Spacey remake of House of Cards for Netflix might not be the best example of the virtues of democracy, but it sure is popular. Despite the show having no official distribution in China, within 24 hours of season 3 hitting BitTorrent, tens of thousands of Chinese people were downloading. According to piracy tracking firm Excipio, and as reported in Variety, China was the number one territory for pirate downloads.

Even some authorised productions can have unintended consequences for foreign regimes, which perhaps illustrates why countries such as China are so keen on restricting as much as they can get away with. According to Through a Screen Darkly by Martha Bayles, the Chinese release of Avatar caused some embarrassment in Beijing. It was approved for screening because the censors were fine with the film’s perceived anti-American message (it was about Americans invading and occupying another planet to extract precious resources, geddit?), but, awkwardly, Chinese audiences apparently also saw it as an allegory for their own domestic situation, in which corrupt officials forcibly evict people from their homes.

Back in 2006, Mission Impossible 3 was officially delayed in China whilst the censors wavered over whether it was too anti-Chinese. By the time the film was actually released (complete with cuts), it was speculated that most of its target audience had already caught the film, “controversial” content included, on pirate DVD.

Cuba and North Korea

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Piracy is even helping disseminate Western culture in countries where internet connectivity is scarce. In Cuba, as recently revealed in a fascinating film by Vox, there are complex networks of people who trade USB drives and hard disks full of American content. The distribution network is so sophisticated that shows are distributed as part of dated caches of bootleg content, so that the latest films and TV shows from America can be shared and accessed in a more organised fashion.

“Even the so-called hermit kingdom, North Korea, is not immune to piracy and the Western assault on the hearts and minds of its citizens.”

Even the so-called hermit kingdom, North Korea, is not immune to piracy and the Western assault on the hearts and minds of its citizens. As reported by Wired magazine, one of the most common household items in the country is known as a “Notel”. This is a portable DVD player with a fold-up screen, which can also play video files from a USB port. In the country, there is apparently a huge black market of USB drives containing South Korean and Western film and TV shows – all of which help to erode the information dominance of the government. Activist groups like the North Korean Strategy Center produce thousands of USB drives annually that have been loaded up with pirated material (including episodes of Friends and Judd Apatow comedies, apparently), and smuggle them into the country.

North Korean escapee Yeonmi Park has since credited illicit viewings of Titanic as helping teach her about the outside world – and partially motivating her escape. And yes, of course, bootleg copies of infamous North Korea comedy film The Interview have also made it into North Korea, thanks to activists who attached USB drives to balloons.

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The extent of this cultural infiltration is such that the regime was forced to legalise the ownership of Notel devices, purely to stop criminalising everyone. And, as a result, many North Korea watchers believe that, whilst older generations may have been true believers in the infallibility of the Kim family, the younger generation are much savvier, educated and are more aware of the crazy situation their country is in.

Peace through BitTorrent

“Pirated TV shows and movies could be more potent because of the very fact that they are illegal.”

As if to underline the point that this cultural consumption can have real, political effects, Dr Paolo Sigismondi of the University of Southern California wrote a paper back in 2009 ruminating on the impact piracy could have on international relations. He said that:

“[The] diffusion of American popular culture internationally, with or without the coordination of governments, appear to be instrumental in transforming local power dynamics, potentially eroding the control of local governments, especially those implementing authoritative regimes, by providing images of alternative ways of living and thinking through the magnifying lenses of an entertainment environment.”

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What’s particularly crazy, though, is that he then goes on to argue that pirated TV shows and movies could be more potent because of the very fact that they are illegal:

“The fact that it is pirated only adds value to its communication act, since audiences have consciously obtained the movie illegally. The last thing they think is that it represents a tool of cultural diplomacy, involving a foreign culture or government, and that its illegality could even make this mainstream fare more alluring than originally planned.”

In other words, it’s analogous to how parents and teachers disapproving of smoking cigarettes makes them even more desirable to rebellious teenagers.

So, ultimately, could piracy be a good thing? Imagine if there was a world without BitTorrent, or if the MPAA managed to achieve its bootleg-free utopia. It might be good for Hollywood’s bottom line, but would that really be so great for America and the West’s relationship with the rest of the world?

Lead image: dashingstock / Shutterstock.com

Read more: What happens to nuclear exclusion zones when humans leave?

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