It’s become a ritual as familiar as death itself. When a beloved culture figure dies, we rush to our computers to savor and share what we loved about their work: that perfect song, that indelible scene, that lapidary passage that’s helped guide us through life. Only four months into 2016, that’s a tall order: Is there time to get through the complete works of David Bowie and all of “The Larry Sanders Show” before the next beloved icon drops dead?
When Prince died yesterday, we were forced to modify that familiar routine. He was famously militant about keeping his music off YouTube, including the landmark case in which a 30-second clip of a baby dancing to “Let’s Go Crazy” was slapped with a takedown notice, and last year he withdrew his songs from every streaming service except for Tidal. There were still plenty of Prince clips to pass around, most of them live versions or covers of other artists with a more forgiving attitude; Prince tried to get a clip of him playing “Creep” taken offline, but Radiohead, who own the song’s copyright, overruled him.
The A.V. Club offered a helpful hint about “how to listen to Prince online right now,” and the Daily Beast explained “Why You Can’t Listen to Prince’s Music After His Death,” but though both articles at least acknowledge the possibility that you could simply go to iTunes and drop $12.99 on his greatest hits, their headlines effectively equate music’s being available with it being free. There’s no reason “you” can’t listen to Prince’s music, and there never was. He just wanted to be damn sure that you paid for it.
The counter-arguments are always the same: People don’t have to pay for music anymore, and if you don’t provide it for an insanely low fee — let’s say $9.99 a month for the vast bulk of everything humanity has ever recorded — they’re just going to take it. Corporations own most of it anyway, so most of the money never makes it back to the artists, anyway. And besides, they’re rich: What do they need the money for? Movies haven’t quite hit that point yet, but that’s only because the files are so much larger: We’re a single generation of broadband speed (and/or one revolution in compression algorithms) from Hollywood and the music industry being in the same foundering boat.
I could point to the article revealing that Prince anonymously gave $12,000 to keep the U.S.’s first African-American library from closing down, but I’m sure he had dinners that cost more. Let’s talk about respect, instead. Prince wasn’t some corporate pawn in thrall to a long-term contract: He fought an unprecedented, and undoubtedly costly, battle for the right to control how his recordings were released, and very publicly broke with Spotify and Apple Music over their low royalty rates. So if you illegally download his music, you’re not taking money from a faceless conglomerate; you’re contravening the express wishes of an artist whose work you purportedly value. (If you don’t think Prince’s music has value, then fair enough, except then why are you downloading it?)
The situation is trickier when it comes to Prince’s movies, especially “Sign o’ the Times,” the epochal 1987 concert film that stands as the best documentary of what it was like to see him live. It’s never been released on DVD, and the only decent version currently available is a remastered Japanese Blu-ray that retails for upwards of $100 — and that’s only if you’ve already shelled out the dough for a region-free Blu-ray player. The chances of this streaming version available on a sketchy Russian website being legal are pretty much zero, but given that there’s no better option and Prince’s catalogue reissues have been mired in rights issues for years, no harm, no foul, right?
Matt Singer hashed out this issue in a Criticwire post called “Is It Okay for Critics to Pirate Movies?” four years ago, and though the landscape has shifted somewhat since then, it’s generally been towards fewer movies being available, at least on all-you-can eat services like Netflix who have shifted their focus towards new releases and TV shows. Many are available for a modest iTunes rental, but many aren’t, which with the death of video stores leaves vital chunks of cinema history stranded in no man’s land: Unavailable to rent, either physical or virtual, but priced beyond what a curious viewer is willing to pay. (See, for example, the Criterion releases that aren’t available on their Hulu channel.) One has to imagine that gap will be closed eventually, but in the meantime, what’s a cinephile to do?
That, I would submit, is up to you. I believe piracy is wrong, but so is speeding, and if I said I never broke the speed limit, I’d be lying. (I’d probably be lying if I said I hadn’t done it today.) Just one request: Whatever you do, own it. Don’t pretend that stealing art is sticking it to The Man, or that digital piracy isn’t theft because the original copy isn’t touched; you can steal ideas, too, and just as with content, you degrade the value of the original even if it isn’t tangibly altered. Don’t say you can’t afford it, unless you haven’t bought a latte or a drink at a bar in the last month. None of us live uncompromised lives, but if you’re going to lie or cheat or steal — and the odds are pretty good you will — just admit it. Feel the odor of bullshit dissipate as you trade the pose of an intellectual property warrior for the mantle of a petty crook; experience the lightness of you soul as you say the magic words: “I wanted something, so I took it.” Don’t you feel better now?