‘Who Does it Hurt?’: How Piracy Affects Australian Film and TV

Rochelle Siemienowicz has been working in the Australian film and television industry for decades. At first glance, mass-downloading seems like a distant threat to the local industry (where the challenge is to attract audiences in the first place) - but a deeper look reveals that all those Game of Thrones downloads are having an insidious psychological effect that erodes the idea of paying for entertainment at all.

The idea that millions of Australians might be hunched over Pirate Bay, desperately downloading local films and television dramas initially sounds like a twisted kind of paradise to me. If only our own screen stories were that popular. I used to laugh (a little bitterly) at those 2007 anti-piracy ads that suggested we were all downloading Kenny, Wolf Creek and Happy Feet – and thus ‘burning our own industry’. These days, I still wince when I’m forced to watch the newer anti-piracy ads, mainly because they hit you like a crude punch before the viewing of every (legal) DVD. Slashed over the screen like violent graffiti, sirens blaring, are the words: ‘You wouldn’t steal a car. You wouldn’t steal a handbag. Piracy is stealing!’ Yes! I feel like shouting. I know! That’s why I rented/bought/borrowed this legal copy, so don’t preach to the converted.

At least the current anti-piracy ads have given up trying to make the direct connection between illegal downloading and the Australian screen industry’s woes. After all, any idiot can tell you our main problems, particularly in the film sector, are not with piracy but with our inability to compete with Hollywood. As film critic Marc Fennell argued at MetroScreen’s 2012 debate on screen piracy, when he looked, he couldn’t find a single Australian film in the top 1000 pirated movies at Pirate Bay. How exactly can piracy be destroying Australian jobs and Australian stories, when the things we most we want to steal are The Hangover II, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones?

The direct effects of piracy on our local screen industry may be hard to immediately discern, but solid research suggests harm. ‘The Economic Consequences of Movie Piracy: Australia’, a study conducted by the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft and Oxford Economics, concluded that in the 12-month period up to July 2010, movie piracy alone had cost the Australian economy $1.37 billion in lost revenue and 6,100 full-time jobs – and this was a conservative estimate that didn’t count each pirated view as a lost sale. The people who experienced the direct loss of income were of course film producers, cinema exhibitors, film and DVD distributors, DVD and Blu-ray rental and sales firms and legal streamers, while indirect losses were counted in areas such as legal services, marketing, rent – and lost tax revenue.

Admittedly, this 2010 research is getting a little long in the tooth – and three years later, legal streaming services like iTunes, Apple TV and catch-up television, as well as great online borrowing services like the Australian based QuickFlix, have meant there are far more options for those of us who’d like to do the right thing, as well as accessing entertainment in a timely way so we can join the global water-cooler conversations about our favourite shows and films.

'That techie teenage kid who’s downloading *Mad Men* for his computer-shy parents, *The Dark Knight* for himself, and *The Simpsons Movie* for his little sister, is going to think very hard before he ever forks out $15 to go to the movies.'

'That techie teenage kid who’s downloading Mad Men for his computer-shy parents, The Dark Knight for himself, and The Simpsons Movie for his little sister, is going to think very hard before he ever forks out $15 to go to the movies.'

More than a quarter of us are still pirating, however. According to 2012 research by the Intellectual Property Awareness Foundation (IPAP), 27 per cent of Australians aged between 18 – 64 are regularly accessing illegal movies and television programs, and the majority do it because it’s free, even though your classic pirate is likely to be affluent and well educated.

There’s no denying that a culture of semi-sanctioned illegal downloading devalues content – whatever its country of origin. That techie teenage kid who’s downloading Mad Men for his computer-shy parents, The Dark Knight for himself, and The Simpsons Movie for his little sister, is going to think very hard before he ever forks out $15 to go to the movies or, later in his life, $3.99 for an episode of ABC Aussie drama or comedy on Apple TV. He’s habituated to getting it for free. It’s just so easy - and so easy to rationalise the reasons why he shouldn’t have to pay.

Here in Australia, where Hollywood is seen as a greedy and bullying behemoth, it’s easy to justify pirating blockbusters. Who does it hurt? Well, your local cinema operator for a start, and they’re the ones who need to run a business that makes a profit and spreads risk so they can take a punt on that plucky little Australian feature or documentary that needs a theatrical release to break through into public consciousness. Other favourite excuses we make include the one about Apple charging Australians more for music and films than it does our American counterparts – making it only fair to fight back, while we mouth the tired old words that ‘information needs to be free’. Elmo Keep’s excellent article, ‘The Case Against Free’, over at Junkee should make anyone wary of using that platitude.

Justifying your file stealing by saying that you’re also a big buyer of legal DVDs is another favourite excuse; along with the argument that you wouldn’t have gone to see something at the movies anyway, so nobody’s being hurt.

Australia’s clunky copyright law, dating from 1968, well before the digital revolution, also provides helpful justifications for those wanting to steal. The Australian Digital Alliance – Australia’s peak body representing copyright users – and agitating for copyright law reform – provides some entertainingly stupid examples of current laws at their #CopyWrong site. These include: ‘You can copy music from a CD to a smartphone or tablet - but not to your smartphone and tablet’, or ‘A comedian can remix content for parody or satire, but an artist can’t remix the same content for any other artistic purpose’, or ‘You can copy music from a CD to your tablet - but you can’t copy a film from a DVD to your tablet.’

With laws so silly, a lazy thinker can easily extrapolate that we’re all breaking copyright law in some form or another, so why bother trying to work it all out?

Interestingly, IPAP’s previously cited 2012 study found that 10 per cent of those who used to illegally download have now stopped. Perhaps the anti-piracy ads are working after all. The recent ‘Thank You’ campaign ad by IPAP has taken the soft and fuzzy approach. It’s a welcome antidote to the sirens and graffiti. Beloved Aussie actors like Roy Billing, Susie Porter and Red Dog’s Koko, as well as writers, cinema operators and DVD store clerks, take an upbeat tone to relay the gentle message: ‘thanks – paying for films and TV works for everyone!’

IP Awareness Foundation 2012 Thankyou Campaign

Personally, I have some dodgy downloads in my past, and if it’s too hard to find a legal copy of a film or a TV show, I may resort to piracy. After all, it’s my job to watch things as early as possible so I can write about them, and from a purely selfish angle, I want to watch what I want to watch, and I want to watch it now. I also expect businesses to make it EASY for me to pay for things. Easier than pirating them. The truth is that it is getting easier and quicker to legally follow your bliss. And it feels good to pay for superb storytelling, and to imagine that the creators might be able to sustain their careers to make more of what I love – whether they’re working in LA, France or Melbourne.

Piracy used to feel a little bit brave and subversive – ‘Up yours to the Man!’ But now, it just feels cheap.

Portrait of Rochelle Siemienowicz