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Is it Okay For Critics to Pirate Movies?

Is it Okay For Critics to Pirate Movies?

Abortion is to politics as online piracy is to movies; the hot button issue that will never be resolved, the debate with two intractable sides that refuse to even consider the other’s argument, the conversation where any attempt at civil discussion inevitably devolves into name-calling and anger.  Copyright supporters believe pirates are hurting business for everyone, pirates believe they’re hurting no one.  Copyright supporters say piracy is theft; pirates say no definition of theft describes theft that doesn’t disturb the original property.  Around and around we go, in a whirlpool of torrents and tirades.

I generally align myself with anti-piracy arguments, but it’s a conversation — kind of like abortion — that I try to stay out of.  I don’t need the agita.  I follow my conscience and let others do the same.  I don’t feel good pirating movies.  If it doesn’t bother you, fine.  But it bothers me, so I don’t do it.

Despite my best efforts though, I find myself drawn into the whirlpool by Mike D’Angelo‘s recent piece on Indiewire in which he refutes the most popular arguments against piracy.  That piece was a follow-up to another pro-piracy essay D’Angelo had written a few weeks earlier as justification for his plan to download a copy of the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of “Anatomy of a Murder” later that night:

“I don’t pirate movies out of some sorry sense of entitlement. I pirate movies because at the present moment I know of no other means of watching a high-definition copy of an older film without buying it outright. And that’s ridiculous.”

D’Angelo’s inarguably correct about one thing: if you want to watch a new Criterion Blu-ray without purchasing it, you don’t have a lot of legal options.  Netflix and Blockbuster and most other legitimate movies-by-mail businesses have stopped stocking new catalog Blu-ray titles.  Same for brick and mortar video stores, mostly because brick and mortar video stores are going the way of the dinosaur at an alarming rate.  Cinephiles like D’Angelo looking for high-res prints of classics better have a lot of disposable income or a willingness to illegally download them.

I’m not sure, though, how that attitude doesn’t qualify as a sense of entitlement.  Why should D’Angelo get to watch Criterion’s “Anatomy of a Murder” restoration if he doesn’t want to pay Criterion for it?  D’Angelo would say it’s justified by the fact that he has no interest in buying “Anatomy of a Murder” on Blu-ray (although he would rent it if he could), therefore his download has no negative impact on Criterion’s bottom line.  But someone’s paying for that digital restoration, and that someone is Criterion.  And their business is based on sales.  

D’Angelo’s download may have no short-term impact on any one title’s profitability, but if he and others persist in torrenting Criterion’s films instead of supporting their work, they won’t be in business for very long.  Every purchase is a vote for more Criterion Blu-rays.  Every download is a vote for “Why should we bother doing this if people don’t think it’s worth paying for?”  The business side of movie retail is like a whirlpool too; the Blu-ray business weakens, renters stop offering catalog Blu-rays, customers pirate them instead, distributors and retailers lose more money, have less to spend on producing and stocking more catalog titles, which encourages more piracy.

Now in this case D’Angelo sounds like he’s watching “Anatomy of a Murder” for personal curiosity, but that may — may, I said, may — raise one legitimate reason why critics like D’Angelo *should* be able to see a restoration of an old film without paying for it: critical research.  What if D’Angelo had to write an article on director Otto Preminger and he was on deadline and the only video store in his neighborhood didn’t carry “Anatomy of a Murder” (for all I know, that is exactly the situation that prompted D’Angelo to watch the film)?  Even more generally: should a critic have access to any film he wants?  A critic’s talents are directly proportional to his or her film knowledge.  But financially speaking, film criticism is in even worse shape than video retail.  Film critics can’t afford to drop $40 a pop for Criterion Blu-rays.  Does playing by the rules doom a film critic to a certain degree of ignorance?

I don’t know.  I’d be lying if I said I haven’t occasionally watched a movie on YouTube for research when I couldn’t find it on Netflix or Hulu or in my local video store.  Does the fact that I’m going to write about the film, and possibly bring some attention and maybe a few sales — or interest in a legal release — justify it?  You tell me.  But do it civilly, please.

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