Is it Okay to Pirate Movies?

Pirating films is highly associated with broke college students. However, how much does piracy actually affect creators?

On Aug. 14, 2020, the most visited pirate site on the internet, KissAnime, and its sister site, KissManga, shut down. A recently revised Japanese copyright law finally ended its monumental eight year lifespan. According to SimilarWeb analytics, KissAnime reached a shocking 108 million visits in April 2020, more than three times the 30 million average visits that Pirate Bay, what many consider to be the most renowned pirating site, receives a month. 

Copyright laws take down streaming sites all the time, but this one was special. KissAnime was not only popular, but also the central hub of a community that became very vocal about their loss, once again sparking a recurring conversation about piracy. Perhaps the most obvious question to ask is, how much does pirating actually affect creators?

According to the Motion Picture Association, quite a lot. In 2005, the MPA teamed up with LEK consulting to conduct a now well-known research study on how much piracy is negatively affecting the U.S. film industry. The results claimed studios lost as much as $6.1 billion in 2005 alone. The study also illuminated the demographics of pirates. 80 percent of piracy happened overseas with the highest contributors being China, Russia, and Thailand. Given this data, the MPA confidently claims that “piracy is the biggest threat to the US motion picture industry.”

However, there are some reasons to be a bit skeptical of this study. In 2008, an error was discovered in the data: They initially claimed that 44 percent of financial losses to piracy were attributable to college students, but that number was found to actually be around 15 percent. 

In addition, critics challenged the study’s shocking $6.1 billion loss, as they believe many pirates wouldn’t have paid for the films even if they had to, especially in places like China where legal access to some movies is slim.

Along with this study, the MPA is an active force in the fight against piracy, creating a number of controversial anti-piracy campaigns throughout the years, such as the “Who Makes Movies” advertisements in 2003 and the slogan “you can click, but you can’t hide” in 2004. 

However, the company itself has been involved in a number of contentious copyright infringement cases, bringing into question the sincerity of its anti-piracy campaigns. For example, in 2006 the MPA admitted to creating illegal copies of the documentary “This Film is Not Yet Rated” for its employees. Award winning film critic Roger Ebert commented, “that, of course, would be precisely the kind of bootleg piracy the [MPA] is waging war against.”

Although the MPA has some history, it is worth noting that, despite the presence of skeptics, no other statistic from the study has been officially proven wrong in the 12 years since 2008, and most experts agree that piracy is likely hurting creative industries, even if the precise amount is ambiguous.

Despite potential financial losses, most students that were interviewed seemed to agree that the losses weren’t as relevant for bigger films.

“If it’s a small artist or filmmaker, I do believe that you shouldn’t pirate because it takes away from their potential exposure and they need your financial support,” Eleanor Roosevelt College senior Jahfreen Alam said. “In comparison, let’s say it’s a big artist like Beyonce. I have no qualms over pirating something like Lemonade.” 

This implies that many don’t see piracy as simply right or wrong. It depends on what you’re pirating some properties don’t need your cash. However, piracy may affect more than just profit.

“I think piracy can be good,” ERC senior Joshua Hoangt, said. “It gives more access to different media … and it’s removing that class boundary among [those who can and can’t afford it].”

Theatre fans have made similar remarks. Theatre is a medium associated with high class and often requires individuals to be physically present in order to watch live performances. When a recording of the performance isn’t sold, a financial barrier is created, and those who cannot afford to attend must turn to pirated recordings as a way to appreciate the art.

In the discussion of art forms that have specific reasons to pirate, we must return to anime, a medium with a fascinating history and conversation behind its pirating culture. 

Studios and producers have always made anime primarily for a Japanese audience, and in the 70s and 80s, very few shows were translated and sold in Western languages. Dedicated fans overcame this lack of availability by illegally copying videos, subtitling them, and distributing them via tapes and torrenting. 

This effort is what allowed anime to develop a fanbase at all in the West. Although we see a recent renaissance of availability through platforms like Netflix, for much of anime’s history, the Western audience has largely been alone. The community was built from the ground up on pirating when there was no other option, and as a result, pirating became an important part of its culture. The aforementioned prominence of KissAnime is a manifestation of this, and the site’s fans often defend the use of piracy websites. 

A common pro-piracy argument centers around the idea that although quick access piracy may result in short-term financial losses, the exposure may provide benefits in the long-term. Many in the anime community started watching when they were young and could not afford to pay, but some of these young fans grow up to become supporters of the industry once they are willing and able to pay for art they appreciate. 

The Western anime industry is itself evidence of this phenomenon; what began as a small, ragtag group that pirated when there was no other option eventually grew to become a viable industry through exposure.

Additionally, the current landscape of the internet may give exposure related arguments firmer ground to stand on. The web spreads thought rapidly in a time period where exposure is paramount to relevancy. 

Large corporations like Amazon and Google take advantage of this reality through the release of products like Amazon Alexa, which are intended not only to make profit, but also to increase public awareness for the brand.

While the financial effects of piracy are still controversial, some would argue that, even if it does hurt creators, sometimes that’s exactly the reason you should pirate.

“I think the fact that piracy happens opens up the conversation of why it’s happening in the first place,” ERC senior Konami Masui said, “I think piracy is more of a byproduct than an issue itself.”

Even though pirates founded the western anime community, many attribute the persistence of piracy culture to the industry’s inability to adapt. To this day, anime makes the majority of its profit through DVD and Blu-Ray sales, and fascinatingly, “Blu-Rays sold” is the standard metric that Japanese corporations use to compare success. 

Anime Blu-Rays are typically marketed towards a niche, hardcore audience and are often priced anywhere between $50 to $200 for 6 to 12 episodes. While the dedicated collectors in Japan feel the prices are reasonable, the same can’t be said for Westerners. When online streaming started to become popular, many thought the Anime business model would change. 

However, many producers failed to see the value in licensing their shows to be streamed they believed that an $8 subscription was too cheap considering their Blu-Ray prices. Going into the mid-2000s, legal streaming platforms struggled to secure licensing deals, and many shows ended up unavailable to stream. So while the existence of streaming certainly did increase accessibility, it did not radically shift the anime business model as some expected. 

Many who support pirating anime claim the industry is stuck dwelling on outdated business practices and fans should pirate so that these corporations get the message if they want our money, they have to correctly play the game of economics and provide a good service. 

Digibro, a controversial figure in the online anime community, is known for saying that they would be willing to see the anime industry burned down and rebuilt on its ashes if it meant that the business would evolve for the better. 

Those in this party see pirating as a form of economic protest as opposed to simple theft. 

Given the nature of the internet, regulating piracy won’t become easier anytime soon. There is simply too much decentralized pirating happening, and whenever a KissAnime falls, successors will appear to replace it. This is a phenomenon with potentially deeper implications than simply the profits of creators, and while corporations can choose to tighten their grip on the internet, it is  us that will ultimately decide what goes and what doesn’t.

Art by Angela Liang for The UCSD Guardian.

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