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Critic's Notebook: Is It Wrong to Download Pirated Movies? Not Quite, Says One Critic.

By Mike D'Angelo | Indiewire March 30, 2012 at 12:41PM

Remember back in the '80s, when people used to engage in recreational drug use? Just Say No, Nancy Reagan told us, and a collective lightbulb clicked on over America, ending the drug war forever.
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Remember back in the '80s, when people used to engage in recreational drug use? Just Say No, Nancy Reagan told us, and a collective lightbulb clicked on over America, ending the drug war forever.

Over in the U.K., the fight against online piracy now hopes to achieve similar results with a campaign that amounts to Knock It Off, as British filmgoers will be subjected for the next few weeks to a special "Battleship" trailer listing the various reasons why it's well worth paying to see a board-game adaptation on the big screen.

That's the face of piracy for most people: overprivileged computer nerds downloading a copy of a movie that's playing at the multiplex just a few minutes away from their house. Skinflints. Freeloaders. Lebowskis.

There's another, much less publicized side of pirating movies, however—one that isn't quite so black-and-white, though it's impossible to convince certain parties of the difference. About a month ago, I wrote a blog post explaining why I sometimes download Blu-ray rips of old movies. Brick-and-mortar video stores, to the meager extent that they still exist, rarely carry new high-def versions of classic titles like "Belle de Jour" and "Last Tango in Paris," and increasingly, neither do Netflix or Blockbuster-By-Mail, who seem to have determined that there's little demand for them. Often, there's simply no legitimate means of renting the highest-quality home-video release of the most important and celebrated movies ever made. But, hey, they have plenty of copies of "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked," so just add that to your queue instead.

Response to my blog post about this issue ran about 80% thoughtful and measured, 20% inane and heated. (I was also challenged by multiple folks on Twitter, even though that's not an ideal forum for lengthy debate.) Here are the most common objections that were lodged, none of which I find terribly persuasive.

"Would you steal a car for a day and then return it? Is that okay, smart guy? Huh?"

Actually, I might, if there were suddenly no car-rental options in existence, and if "stealing" the car merely involved touching it to create an exact duplicate, leaving the original intact. (Example swiped from a stand-up routine by Mindy Kaling. But she can still use it!) Comparisons to traditional notions of theft are silly. We consider those wrong because they do obvious, quantifiable harm. If I download a film that I had no intention of buying, or that I do in fact buy after I've seen it and decide it's worth owning, nobody has been deprived of anything. There isn't even any lost revenue, since (a) I can't rent the films anyway (that's why I'm pirating them), and (b) I still pay monthly membership fees to Netflix or whoever (for the titles they do rent), which is constant regardless of whether they acquire Buster Keaton's "Seven Chances" on Blu.

"Why don't you just buy everything you want to watch and then resell it on eBay?"

This solution to the problem was actually suggested to me with a straight face by someone from Masters of Cinema, the U.K. equivalent of the Criterion collection. If I rented one film per month, I might be willing to take the financial hit (used Blu-rays rarely sell for even half what you paid for them) and go to the extra trouble. But for a serious film buff, that's just laughable. Instead of paying $3 per rental, which was on the high end in the Blockbuster era, you'd be paying at least $10, and probably much more. I'd refuse to do that on principle even if I weren't subsisting hand-to-mouth right now, which I am.

"Even if you're not doing any harm per se, isn't participating in a harmful system morally questionable?"

Piracy does unquestionably cost the studios some money, though studies suggest that they tend to exaggerate the damage. Should I take some of the responsibility for the kids who'll download "Battleship"? That's like saying that people who have a glass of wine at dinner should feel guilty about the victim of a drunk driver thousands of miles away. Granted, the analogy is imperfect—technically, downloading any film is illegal, whereas alcohol consumption is not—but just extend it to the Prohibition era, if you like. If we can't agree that folks who quietly flouted that law in private (or who smoke weed at home today, for that matter) weren't (aren't) evil-enabling scumbags, then there's just no common ground here.

This article is related to: Critic's Notebook, Reviews





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