Random thoughts about piracy
Living in the US, I see signs of media piracy all the time. I have numerous friends who are unrepentant music/movie/TV/book pirates. And while I buy a surprising quantity of my media, I also pirate that which I cannot get due to international rights laws or due to foolish business decisions on behalf of media companies. (Dear HBO, some of us True Blood fans would actually pay for your content if you would just make it available without requiring us to own a TV/cable subscription. ktxby.) Whenever I travel to Europe, my friends complain incessantly about how they cannot get access to American media content without pirating it. Yet, whenever I hear people around me talk about their practices of media piracy, it always comes with a coating of guilt layered on the top like molasses. Even my unrepentant friends frame their practices in terms of how they refuse to feel guilty because of XYZ corrupt institution. Guilt prevails as the dominant Western discourse to respond to when engaged in acts of piracy.
Not in India. I was absolutely enthralled with how the discourse around piracy in India was radically different than anything I had seen elsewhere. In India, piracy is either 1) a point of pride; or 2) a practical response to an illogical system. There is no guilt, no shame.
I loved hearing people talk about mastering different techniques for pirating media, software, and even infrastructural needs (like water, electricity, even sewage…) There was a machismo involved in showing off the ability to pirate. To pay was to be cheated, which was decidedly un-masculine. Of course, getting caught is also part of the whole system, but the next move is not to feel guilty; it is to bribe the person who catches you. Ironically, people will often pay more to bribe inspectors than it would’ve cost them to pay for the service/item in the first place. Again, we’re back to pride/masculinity. Pirating was an honorable thing to do; not pirating is to be cheated.
Money is certainly an issue for many Indians, but a lack of resources doesn’t fully explain the practices of piracy. Another factor at work has to do with the role of conspicuous consumption in India. It’s perfectly reasonable for a well-to-do Indian to spend an obscene amount of money on an expensive car, a fancy electronic item, or brand name clothing. But that’s different, because those items are to be shown off as a symbol of status. No one shows off the fact that they bought a legal copy of software or a legal version of the latest Bollywood flick. Showing off the fact that you paid full price for something that could be obtained for free would make you look foolish, not important. Pirating is a completely naturalized practice.
The issue of piracy is certainly complex and I’m being overly simplistic in what I’m offering (see: Adrian John’s “Piracy” for a more proper treatment of piracy). But I can’t help but think about the significant cultural differences between the US and India whenever I hear Americans talk about the “problem” of piracy. Piracy means such radically different things to Americans and Indians and, more importantly, the guilt that makes many Americans comply with anti-piracy regulations is completely ineffective in India.
I really wonder how these kinds of issues are going to play out… Will corporations find new ways of forcing Indians comply? Will Americans’ attitude towards piracy become less guilt-ridden? What will all of this mean for software, media, and even infrastructural elements? One thing’s for sure… social norms will still dominate any legal or technical regulatory intervention.