Is obscurity a greater risk than piracy?



The not-so-obscure pirate
The not-so-obscure pirate

What better time to take up this debate than now when Anurag Kashyap, the director of Udta Punjab, has himself said that he does not care two hoots about the movie being downloaded online once the movie releases in the cinemas. Though he has urged everyone to desist from torrenting the movie till it is released (for wholly unrelated reasons), he made it clear that he is not in any way against the downloading of movies online and recognises that piracy is an issue of access. Although Anurag Kashyap is by no means your run of the mill Bollywood director, such an unambiguous statement from a Bollywood personality recognising the reality of piracy is indeed noteworthy. In fact, he has in the past, attributed his rise to popularity to piracy.

While we have extensively discussed on our blog (see, here, here and here) that piracy may not be the kind of villain everyone portrays it to be, we have never really touched upon one of the greatest advantages of piracy for the modern artist- a way out of obscurity. Thus, in an era of short attention spans and innumerable new products flooding the markets every day, would it be correct to say that piracy poses a much lesser threat as compared to obscurity? This question came to the forefront recently when Tim O’Reilly, the CEO of O’Reilly Media house, re-asserted his decade old view that obscurity is a greater threat for artists than piracy.  His assertions came on the occasion of the International Day against DRM and as reported in the IPKat, Reilly feels that piracy at worst may shave off a few percentage points from the revenues of the already famous artists but has the potential to lift the veil of obscurity hanging over upcoming artists.

Do we have a clear winner?

The rationale for Tim O’ Reilly’s stance is that when more than 1, 00, 000 new titles are added each year and millions of books already in circulation, only a minuscule percentage of them are going to have any kind of viable sales. In such an environment, where obscurity is the norm for most of the books even after getting published, lowering the barriers of access offers them the best way out of the perpetual obscurity they might be doomed to. He also goes on to state that there is an invalid assumption that substantial revenues are lost out to piracy. According to him, this assumption is flawed for two reasons- there is no reason to believe that the same copies may have been bought legitimately had the illicit copies been not available and secondly, it does not account for the profits gained by way of customers upgrading to a legitimate copy after using a pirated one.  He points out that the same logic applies to music/ movie industry as well.

So, can we say with certainty that one is better off being pirated than being confined to obscurity? Much like the characters of the famous movie ‘Rashomon’, each stakeholder in this debate will have a diametrically opposite story to tell.

For instance, a beginner in any industry might view obscurity to be a far greater problem than piracy. But, can one say the same for an established artist? Interestingly, there was an instance when Paulo Coelho, after becoming an established author, deliberately leaked his work online to make it popular. This also indicates that the debate is not confined to obscurity of the artists per se but vis a vis their products as well. Even for an established artist, the threat of his newly released work getting lost in the oblivion is a reality in the digital world. The other factors to be considered are the size of the geographical market and the nature of media. Say for instance a Hollywood movie will not be too badly affected by piracy given the volume of end revenues, can the same be said for a regional Indian movie, for which even a small loss of revenues can be fatal? Also, O’Reilly’s observations are mostly based on the book industry (though he asserts that they will hold true for other industries as well), wherein the consumers still prefer the print version, if it applies equally well for other industries where the digital version is the norm is a question worth pondering. Furthermore, since digital releases have a ‘long tail’, unlike physical products, and piracy itself contributes to keeping this tail long, it would be interesting to study how it affects both revenues as well as the archiving of culture.

Either way, for the time being, we are in a limbo and do not have a clear winner, though I get the feeling that piracy might have its nose a little ahead of obscurity.


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2 thoughts on “Is obscurity a greater risk than piracy?”

  1. Jagdish Sagar

    Very interesting discussion. Certainly, a copyright owner has every right to choose between enforcing his rights and refraining from doing so as a market strategy, until and unless he considers it worth his while to seek remedies. This apart, even in other cases the owner might not deem it cost-effective to seek remedies against at least some instances of infringement. Refraining from seeking remedies does not estop or otherwise deprive him of remedies if and when he wants to seek them. It’s a commercial call to be made by the owner and no one else.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sir. In fact, Tim O’Reilly seems to suggest and to an extent prove, through his established enterprise, that a strategy of easy access would make for good commerce as well.

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