Gravity's Rainbow

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I can’t buy your album/movie/book

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It’s not uncommon to come across artists bemoaning people pirating their work. I’ve written about this before, but I’m going to write about it again with some insights gained from living outside the US and with a disability.

First, here’s what independent film maker Jem Cohen has to say about media piracy in Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform:

Jem Cohen was dismayed to find his recent film … on file-sharing sites before its official release. An implicit social contract has been broken, Cohen felt. “The message was, don’t bother to make this movie next time,” he told me. “If something that I’ve made is just plain not accessible, then I’m not going to hold it against somebody for making it available, ” he said, referring to movies that have fallen out of circulation. “But when I put out a documentary … and I put it out on an independent label, that’s just insane.”

If something hasn’t been released at all, I do think plastering it all over the internet for free is a problem. But release dates are funny things – I have a friend whose book is finished, but it won’t be “released” for a very long time because the publisher is timing it for a kind-of related holiday. Release dates for different formats are different: movies are “released” in theatres long before they’re released on DVD. DVD release dates, Blu-ray, digital release dates at high and low resolution, and rental release dates are all often different. Release dates on different digital platforms are different. Release dates are different in different countries.

The documentary Cohen is talking about – Building a Broken Mousetrap – is only available to buy as a physical object. Where I live, it’s only available as an expensive DVD import with a ship time of more than a month. I don’t know many people with a real DVD player. Most of the people I know can’t even play DVDs on their computers.

I could torrent the film in a high quality format right now, though.

Cohen complains about the film being pirated before it was released – but it was never released digitally. People who wanted the film digitally were never going to have the option to get it legally. Why should fans of his work have ever expected to be able to? Most of his films are available as physical objects only.

Many of his films are only available on DVD/Blu-ray and thru archives like the Video Data Bank. Here’s what buying from the VDB is like:

VDB offers very few titles as Individual Purchases. Individual Purchases come with no public performance or duplication rights, and may not be shown in any commercial, institutional, theatrical or educational settings. Prices typically range from $50 – $120, and titles are available only on DVD.

If an individual is interested in viewing certain works, we recommend that they make a request with an affiliated library, or make an appointment at VDB’s screening room.

You have to email them, ask special permission, and pay an exorbitant price for a DVD, which many people can’t play. Amazon sells a tiny fraction of his films, mostly through third party sellers, mostly for upwards of $30 with slow and expensive shipping.

There is nowhere legal I can buy and download any of Jem Cohen’s films on my computer today. If I could run iTunes on my Ubuntu-running laptop, I could rent or watch 2 of his 75 works on my computer. Those two films aren’t totally inaccessible to me since I do have an iPad, which is becoming slower and more unusable with every update. I could access one of those films as a dvd from my city or university library if I physically go to the library and dig out my old plug in optical drive.

Very few of Jem Cohen’s works are available to buy and most of those are not available digitally. Of his many, many works, there are only 3 I can realistically access and one of those only because of the people he complains about releasing Building a Broken Mousetrap.

When artists complain about media piracy, they often have absolutely no idea how inaccessible their work is. Here are reasons I might pirate something:

  • I can’t buy it in my country.
  • It’s very expensive to buy it from my country
    • currency exchange
    • high shipping costs
  • I can’t buy it in a convenient format that works on my devices.
    • physical object
    • not compatible with Linux with minimal fiddling
  • I can’t get it an a format accessible with my disability:
    • books with DRM that prevent screenreading or make it a pain in the ass
    • movies that only show in theaters
    • no subtitles/closed captioning and/or the ability to add them
  • There are only expensive versions currently released
    • “Buy HD movie available now, but rent SD not available for some unspecified amount of time” is a common one I see

It sounds like I’m picking on Cohen in this post, but he’s not unique in his attitudes toward piracy and his ignorance of accessibility. I think he’s a good example here, though, because he and I actually agree on something pretty fundamental:

Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that the relationship between those who make creative work and those who receive it should be one of mutual support.

I call it the ‘double anchor.’ Each end holds up the other.

I am willing to pay for things. I want to support the artists I love. I spent $1000 on books alone last year and I’m a graduate student. You think I didn’t try to buy the things I pirated?

Your audience isn’t all in the US. Your audience doesn’t all want to use physical media and many can’t. Your audience isn’t all able-bodied. Your audience isn’t all wealthy. Your audience can’t or won’t all use DRM’ed media.

When artists complain about pirating but their work is hard to access legally and conveniently, I get pretty annoyed. Pay attention to when, where, and how your work is available if you want people to buy it.

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