How often do criminals evaluate the pros and cons of their criminal acts? ‘Rarely’ would be a fairly appropriate answer. But when we are dealing with ‘pirates‘, there seems to be a certain mode of rationalisation that may appear prudent to even the most conservative amongst us.
Take for instance a scene from the film in which a prolific pirate, who has downloaded an exhaustive collection of films, music and videos, when asked whether he understood that what he did was against the law, responds by saying: “These haven’t come easy. I have worked hard to collect them. I know the value of what I have.”
We’ve discussed the issue of piracy several times on this blog, and we’ve gone back and forth on the issue in the comments section. But the film Partners in Crime, directed by Paromita Vohra, a documentary film-maker, probes in depth those issues that we’ve only just fleetingly touched on in the past – Is piracy organised crime or merely a class struggle? How should we perceive artists who treat piracy as a natural part of the game, instead of a force to be reckoned with? How has aggressive copyright protection affected archiving efforts of individuals and perhaps most importantly from a socio-cultural point of view, are individuals who download material for free from the internet merely living out a brand new cultural freedom or are they criminals?
These are questions that those involved in the movie have outlined and successfully explored in the course of the film. Take for instance the segment featuring my favourite Indian rock band Thermal and a Quarter, where the film-makers elicit their opinions on piracy and how its affects them from a commercial point of view. Their response is a welcome departure from the Metallica-esque position of aggressively protecting works, to the extent of suing their own fans for illegally downloading their music. To explain their stand quite simply – they treat their CD’s like visiting cards, most often distributing them for free after their shows, in order to draw more people to their live shows. They also allow their songs to be downloaded for free from their website. “Then how do they make money?” one may ask. Some fans buy their CD’s anyway. Others buy merchandise like caps, t-shirts and sweatshirts. Their shows are always sold out. I can vouch for that. It’s this kind of philosophy that I’ve always admired and spoken about in this blog previously, the emphasis being that it’s not that people are unwilling to pay for good content, it’s just that artists need to let go of the idea of copyright as an instrument of protection. The message is straightforward: The money will come, but let that not be the focus or objective of one’s creative efforts.
The film gives its viewers an opportunity to understand and contemplate the positions of stakeholders on either side of the copyright debate. Short crisp interviews with those who download movie illegally, a salesman of pirated DVD’s, an independent blogger who investigates the gray area between inspiration and plain plagiarism by pursuing Bollywood songs that are ‘inspired’ by foreign songs, an amateur archivist, and a young entrepreneur who understands how to derive commercial benefits from the complex copyright system set up in the country instead of beating it down.
Moving on to another example in the film that hit home with me, was the tireless pursuit of an Indian blogger who charts songs that claim to be ‘inspired’ from foreign tracks. And no, he’s not talking about Anu Malik. But he very well could be. While not strictly a piracy issue, his efforts, whether conscious or unconscious, do throw up the question of whether it is permissible to draw inspiration from a song, make slight changes and repackage it to derive commercial gains. While we do have provisions for cover versions of songs under the Indian Copyright Act, 1957 we all know of instances where due credit has not been given to the original artist or musician. Without entering into the murky legal waters of what exactly is legal and what isn’t, issues that even the best intellectual lawyers of the country embark upon with floats, the segment captures the essence of a culture in which creativity is borne out of persistently adding to previous works, something which the copyleft movement strongly advocates.
I don’t want to give away too much by way of specific illustrations and segments in the film, so I will end by saying that this film portrays a new cultural phenomenon that may be looked at negatively by several sections, but at the same time, must be accepted as a legitimate expression of this generation’s aspirations and ideals about creativity and innovation, the ethos that is marked by the phrase ‘openness and collaborative production of works’, hallmarks of the copyleft movement. While piracy is certainly still a problem that affects content providers, it must be looked at as a phenomenon that has naturally occurred, not having arisen purely out of human greed, but rather one that is a natural outcome of industries being unable to adapt to changes in distribution models and the demands of a generation that resides on the Internet. A ‘love story‘, if there ever was one, between the pirates and the content that they pirate, as the film so poignantly demonstrates.
Replete with fascinating animation pieces and infographics that trace the history of copyright and a beautiful soundtrack to add, Partners in Crime is everything that I hoped a documentary on piracy would be. As an unapologetic supporter of the copyleft movement, I was pleasantly surprised to find perspectives that I was unfamiliar with and stakeholders’ views that drive home the point better than any of us have been able to on this blog. Here’s hoping we have several such films in the future.
We would like to thank Deepika Sharma for sending us a copy of the film to review and we wish the film-makers great success in their future endeavours.