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

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

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.
“You’re a thief. It’s that simple. You want something for nothing. DIE MOTHERFUCKER DIE!!!!”

There’s no talking to these people (who mostly emerged on Twitter). For whatever reason, piracy seems to provoke a deeply rooted emotional response in some folks, one that reminds me uncomfortably of the old saw that everyone on welfare is a lazy bum content to mooch off of hard-working citizens. I am honestly not trying to save a few bucks by downloading these films, semi-broke though I am. Give me a rental option and I’ll happily fork over the cash. In fact, one reader of my blog post pointed me to an outfit I didn’t know about, ClassicFlix, and I immediately signed up. But they only stock American films made before 1970, and not even all of those—I’m still in search of the Blu-ray for the seminal 1968 mockumentary “David Holzman’s Diary,” which isn’t even available to pirate from any source I can locate.

“Dude, ‘David Holzman’s Diary’ is readily available on ordinary DVD. Why not just watch that?

This is the hardest objection to counter, actually. Do I really “need” to see the highest-quality version, even if that means obtaining it illegally? Isn’t Blu-ray already a compromise from 35mm? (And I’m watching Blu-ray rips, which is a further compromise—though still far superior to a DVD.) Well, no, I suppose not. But it’s ludicrous that we’ve developed this remarkable technology and yet films made more than about 10 years ago have become essentially inaccessible in the format, unless you purchase them outright.

Eventually, I assume, consumer-grade bandwidth will improve to the point where HD streaming looks as good as the rips I watch, and problems associated with physical media will disappear. I look eagerly forward to that day. For right now, though, I really just don’t feel terribly guilty about downloading high-def copies of films that nobody in America has any interest in renting to me. There’s a void here just waiting for somebody (with way more capital than I currently possess) to fill it.

Mike D’Angelo watches a whole lot of movies and writes about ’em, like almost everybody else these days. But he was among the first (online, anyway)! His reviews and essays have been published in Entertainment Weekly, Time Out New York, Esquire, Las Vegas Weekly, the A.V. Club, the Village Voice, and many other fine purveyors of cranky opinions. Follow him on Twitter here.

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