Piracy isn't the public's fault, blame government and big business

Last week, the Australian senate passed a controversial anti-piracy website-blocking legislation. The legislation basically allows service providers to block their users’ access to illegal torrent and downloading sites like The Pirate Bay and Kickass Torrents.

In an age where the Australian government could not be any more hated by the left-leaning youth, this news came as no surprise. Apparently, according to our all-knowing Treasurer, generation Y has no problems gaining a high-income job, so surely we can pay for our entertainment too, right?

The new legislation is the next in a series of increasingly brutal tactics being employed by our Government and the major distributers to combat Australia’s war on piracy. Recently, the households of over four thousand IP addresses were slammed with a threatening letter encouraging them to admit to illegally downloading Dallas Buyers Club. If the offender owned up to the download, they were asked a series of strange, detailed and personal questions before finally being asked to settle the matter via monetary negotiation.

Though the real price of an illegal (and usually poor quality) film rip should be no more than, say, $10, settlements paid by downloaders of Dallas Buyers Club in the U.S. have been around $4,500. Because, you know, damages. Or whatever.

Soon after the legislation was announced, Foxtel were quick to rally behind our Government with unanimous applause. According to CEO Richard Freudenstein, the passing of the legislation marks “a really positive sign for the creative content industry, who can invest more as a result”. Ah yes, thank goodness. More investment. Just what creativity needs!

Foxtel has waged war on Australian pirates for quite some time, so my eyes rolled when I saw that they were the first to support the Government’s new legislation. But, as Australian consumer advocacy group Choice noted last year, Foxtel is losing the battle against Australian pirates and will continue to do so unless they drastically change their outdated business model.

It was pretty easy to see who was behind the legislation. And perhaps Village Roadshow had something to do with it too; their copious donations to our major political parties have been flowing in quite heavily over the last couple of years.

Personally, I was actually quite late to the illegal downloading bandwagon. Throughout most of my teens, I proudly and regularly boasted to my friends that I had never downloaded a full album or film and probably never will.

I’d been a musician for most of my adolescent years and painstakingly watched as money slowly decreased from flowing into the industry.

My initial career goal was to open my own independent record store. But when Gaslight Music closed its doors way back in 2005, almost this time exactly 10 years ago, I realised that my proposed career choice was an extremely financially risky one.

By the time I reached adolescence and was forced to start thinking seriously about a career, the internet had already predominantly fucked the media industry. In staunch defense of the industry I loved and hoped one day to work in, I boycotted illegal downloading.

For a teenage music obsessive with alternative tastes, this was a surprisingly difficult task. Living in a small country town, my options were limited to now near-defunct chains like Sanity and Leading Edge. These chains proved their worthlessness when it came to purchasing even the most mainstream alternative releases. If I wanted something even slightly obscure (a specific example here is Interpol’s Antics) I would need to place a customer order or travel by train to Melbourne to visit slightly more credible record stores like Gaslight Music or the then still independent JB Hi-Fi.

Occasionally, when I had exhausted all possibility of a physical purchase, I would get a friend to download an album for me. I was a technologically inexperienced farm kid; I spent more time outside than online. I’d missed the boat learning Napster and LimeWire and needed to get my friends to do my dirty work for me.

As my adolescence awkwardly and painfully segued into young-adulthood, spare spending money decreased. I now worked for Australia’s leading music retail chain, JB Hi-Fi, and had access to a plethora of albums difficult to find in my youth, but my constant thirst and need for all kinds of music and cinema still remained unsatisfied. I had to start learning how to download.

By this point, journalism was my new career objective. Years of working as a manager in an entertainment store had sharpened my knowledge of music and film to the point of expertise. I’d also learned that managing at a retail chain was exactly not what I had in my mind for a career. As the company decreased its independence, the focus on quality independent media waned. Subsequently, my interest in the company waned, too.

I began writing about music and film around the same time I started illegally downloading. By now I had lost all faith in the mainstream music and film industries, old businesses I’d considered inevitably dead.

From working in the business, I had learned about the yucky world of advertisement and the precedence for major label media. I discovered that companies like Sony and Universal actually pay retailers to feature their material in high-visibility areas – front of the store, dump bins, cue rails, charts – financially bullying smaller labels material into the background, toward the hidden nooks of stores.

I’d also watched with frustration and sadness as the price of a movie ticket skyrocketed toward $20 and the price of an album download remained well above $15. I watched as Australian audiences shunned locally made releases and noted, with surprise and joy, that some forward-thinking Australian filmmakers utilised piracy for their financial benefit.

But with libraries of free information available at my fingertips, it became increasingly hard to justify spending big money on digital major label releases. Governments failed to successfully police the internet, forcing the digital world to transform into a filthy, intoxicating, indulgent, fantastical and lawless playground. We have such freedom online now to take and take and take, and when the alternatives are constantly failing and disappointing how could we be to blame? It’s impossible to keep children out of an unattended candy store.

In the globalised entertainment market, us nomads locked away on this distant land known as Australia are simply paying way too much for digital media. According to Choice, Australians pay approximately 261% more on iTunes and 400% more on Foxtel Pay.

We even pay more for locally made product. For example, buying Australian pop icon Sia’s latest record on iTunes would cost Aussies $15.45 (excluding GST), whereas an American citizen purchasing the exact same record would only pay $8.50. That’s an 82% price difference.

It’s a problem many experts blame on Australia’s hefty goods and services taxes, taxes that seem to be getting more menacing and out of control as local businesses struggle to keep the international market out. We’ve got a push to impose taxes on importing goods from overseas and now, the aptly titled Netflix tax is being considered for our government, because, you know, we’ve got to be fair on poor little floundering Foxtel. *sarcastic tears*

All of this tax nonsense on already overpriced local content has caused disillusion and frustration among Australian consumers. For too long, we have been forced to pay heavily for digital services and frankly, we are sick of it and are far from willing to consider paying more.

Furthermore, our embarrassingly strict censorship laws limit the amount of content actually available to purchase in Australia. The market for cult and arthouse cinema (and music and gaming) is simply too small to justify the arduous task of classification and distribution.

My fellow Australian cinema geeks will sympathise with this frustration. When an overwhelming amount of quality cinema is simply not available for purchase here, period, where else are we expected to go if not piracy?

Many film buffs seek region-free DVD and Blu-ray players so they can purchase media unavailable in Australia from foreign dealers like Amazon. But recently, distributors tightened the grip on the sale of region-free players in Australia. A visit to your local retailer will prove that Australians can no longer legally purchase a region-free Blu-ray player anywhere in this country.

Of course, many Australians have found a way around this issue, either by purchasing region-free players internationally or paying a tech expert to unlock the player. This service will cost you though, of course, and the warranty of your player is immediately void once the hardware has been tampered with.

So say you wanted to purchase a Blu-ray version of the classic 1974 Australian film The Cars That Ate Paris. Your options here are unfortunately limited. Of course, the film is available on Blu-ray overseas (in Japan and Germany, of all places), but is currently unavailable to purchase or stream anywhere in Australia. So unless you already have a region-free player, you cannot watch this locally made classic, at all, period.

But the biggest problem in Australia forcing us to download illegally is timing. Living in a hyper-accelerated, globalised era, the internet regularly assures us of how far behind we are when compared with the rest of the world. While waiting for TV shows like Game of Thrones to air in Australia, fans usually wholly avoid the internet in the interim for fear of being exposed to spoilers.

The LEGO Movie is another example of the ridiculous timing situation forcing Australians toward piracy. The film was shot predominantly over a two-year period in a Sydney studio, with many Aussies’ hard work involved in the film’s production. But, alas, we were among the last countries in the world to have The LEGO Movie in cinemas. The film was shown, almost literally, everywhere else first (except New Zealand, LOL, those poor Kiwis.) Don’t believe me? See for yourself.

For better or worse, the truth is that the internet has caused us to devalue media. An entire generation has been conditioned to expect film, TV, music and books to be free. And that’s going to be extremely difficult mindset to change.

As a musician and writer, I understand the value of my creativity and I know it should not be free. But I don’t want people to fork out a ridiculous amount of money for it and I don’t want some of my fans to benefit over others, just because of locale. I also don’t want an array of public relations people – publishers, advertisers, marketers, researchers and other middlemen – to take a predominant chunk of that creativity.

I’m not here to argue for free media. I’m here to argue against mainstream corporations and Governments controlling prices and content. I want to encourage people to shop and buy locally. Visit Bandcamp and buy directly from the artist. Support crowd-funding projects for unreleased films or visit independent cinemas. Get Netflix instead of Foxtel. Use SoundCloud instead of Spotify.

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