the babel machine


Tuesday, March 29, 2005

consumers and piracy

I'd like to thank everyone who has shared comments on this thorny issue, whether in reaction to my @Play column, my previous blog post or my Infotech article. I really appreciate that you took the time to share your views and whether we agree or disagree, we are engaging in a real conversation.

In particular, I'd like to thank the second Anonymous who posted a comment on my "Piracy and the Philippines" blog post. Do read that comment first because he or she raised very valid points about the economic and political reasons intellectual piracy can't be eliminated in the Philippines. I've posted a brief reaction in the comments to that post, but here's a longer take on the issue.

I agree, and I've said as much, that law enforcement alone won't be enough to eliminate piracy. That's why I'm focusing on consumer education, our individual efforts as buyers. As Anonymous pointed out, a Mindanao bigwig reportedly owns the area in Quiapo that acts as a "central bank" for pirated CDs and DVDs. Just as with any crime in this country, law enforcement is hampered not only by the poverty that drives people to commit crimes, but also powerful vested interests that protect such criminal activity.

As I said in my column and my blog post, individual pirate vendors are not necessarily directly involved with criminal syndicates. They're the small fry who are doing this to earn a living. It's like the beggars who are used by syndicates, or prostitutes who have to remit part of their earnings to pimps and their protectors, or jueteng bookers. I'm not passing judgment on them. It's likely that this is a case of kapit-patalim for many of them. Even though this still does not justify piracy, we can understand why some people are forced into a life of crime -- without romanticizing their condition or condoning their actions.

I've gotten to know many pirate vendors, and for the most part they're nice people. Sometimes, they even offer better customer service than their counterparts in legal establishments, but that's another story.

But as we know, petty criminals might not be directly members of criminal organizations, but their petty crimes can and do translate into funds for large-scale criminal activities. They are the retailers, but how can piracy exist in the first place without bigger fish ensuring that these goods are smuggled into the country, who collect whatever money needs to be paid to protect these individuals from law enforcers, and so on.

As Anonymous pointed out, powerful vested interests protect them, like the Mindanao bigwig he or she mentioned. Just as with every other crime, law enforcement is stymied by the fact that some government officials, businessmen and law enforcers are also part of the distribution network. Look how an illegal gambling activity such as jueteng continues to thrive. Didn't we kick out Erap partly because he was supposed to be the lord of all gambling lords? Yet jueteng has outlived the Erap administration -- it certainly existed before he came into power, and still does today.

As consumers, however, we also become part of this distribution network by buying the products and helping the pirates earn revenues. I'm not saying there's just one monolithic organization directly benefiting from the pesos we individually shell out, but we are, one way or another, helping generate funds for piracy by buying these goods. Can I say that the money I paid for my bottle of San Mig goes directly to the coffers of San Miguel Corp.? Nope, but I do know that by patronizing San Mig (the best beer around, by the way), I'm contributing to its sales and growth.

Most of us don't have the power to clean up our country, but we do have the power to make individual choices. And yes, our individual choices do matter, and collectively they can enable us to help clean up the mess we Filipinos have inherited.

As individuals, many of us do have a choice. The choice is to save up for the things we want to buy. If we can't afford the original, then let's not buy at all. Again, I'm not being holier-than-thou, but what I'm saying is that we should stop looking at piracy only in terms of getting a bargain.

We can't change our society overnight, but we can decide today to stop buying pirated goods. That's a start. Many of us may have bought or are continuing to buy pirated DVDs, VCDs, computer and video games, audio CDs and software applications. Yet it's never too late to stop.

I know, this isn't easy -- I'm not a rich person myself. I know it's especially hard for students. But it's all about stopping to consider pirated goods as an alternative. Face it: Don't we shell out money for things we really like? How much do we shell out to buy a book we really want, even spending a lot on the hardbound edition if we are really excited over the latest title and can't wait for the softcover to come out? How much do we spend on prepaid cell phone cards, prepaid Internet cards, and prepaid cards for massively multiplayer online games like the highly popular Philippine Ragnarok Online? How much do we spend on movie, concert and theater play tickets? How much do we spend on comic books, whether individual issues, graphic novels or trade paperbacks? If we can save our money so we can have enough to spend on these items and activities, then why aren't we willing to do the same for DVDs, VCDs, audio CDs, computer and console games, and business software?

This is really due to the nature of the digital world -- bits are bits. Depending on the quality of the disc and the settings, a copy can be just as good as the original when it comes to optical media. But the copy is cheaper because the pirate isn't paying for the intellectual property. The price of the bootleg copy, for instance, does not take into account the contributions of the actors, writers, director, and others, when it comes to movies.

Yes, I realize most of us will no longer be able to enjoy as many titles as we used to when we were buying pirated discs. If this means that we'll have to buy original VCDs most of the time and only occasionally get original DVDs, well, that's the "sacrifice" we have to make. I'm personally a cheapskate myself and buy original VCDs regularly, but have to think twice about original DVDs. Sure, some original DVDs now sell for less than P300, but compare that to P75 for some original VCDs.

If we can now only buy fewer titles, then that means we'll be choosing quality over quantity. Some people buy a lot of pirated titles at a time, say 5 or 10 or 20 titles at a time. At, say, P80 a pirated DVD, that's P400 to P800 to P1, 600 at a time, depending on how much your suking vendor sells DVDs to you and the discount for getting many titles in one purchase. So for these cases, it's not a question of not being able to afford to shell out P400, P800 or P1, 600 -- it's just that we want more titles for that amount. Even if you don't buy a lot of titles at one go, have you considered how much you end up spending in a month?

Most of the time, particularly for those with more disposable incomes, you buy a pirated DVD not because you really like it or it's a classic, but because it's cheap and who knows, you might end up enjoying the movie. After all, it's just 80 bucks (maybe even P60 or less depending on where you buy). How many PC games do you really end up playing when you keep buying lots of pirated titles? How many of them are really worth playing if they weren't so cheap that they've become almost disposable?

At the very least, we'll have to become more careful in our buying habits, and possibly save ourselves the trouble of cluttering our homes with piles of pirated DVDs and other discs.

Yet something has to be wrong with our mindset and environment if our "common sense" tells us it's better to buy a P80 or P75 (or whatever price your friendly neighborhood pirate gives you) pirated DVD than the same title as a P75 original VCD. To feel that this isn't a good choice because the pirated copy is DVD quality.

If we truly believe that piracy is wrong, if we are otherwise law-abiding citizens who have just gotten hooked on the bad habit that is piracy, then we should do something about it the best way we can -- as individual consumers.

Otherwise, what are we saying? That piracy may be wrong, but it’s OK for us to do it since everyone else is doing it? That it’s OK for us to buy illegal copies if we can’t afford, or don’t want to shell out that much cash, for originals? That anyway piracy is only to be expected in a Third World country like the Philippines?

This is the kind of mindset we’ve been conditioned to accept, and like it or not, this is the kind of thinking we’ll be passing on to our children and future generations of Filipinos. Yes, our experiences with the government and Philippine society have left us cynical, which is why many of us no longer believe we can change things because “that’s the way things are.”

Yet we’re not even being asked to do anything extraordinary or exceptionally heroic. All we have to do is stop buying. That’s the extent of the sacrifice we’re being asked to make.

Sure, we may not be able to stop pirates from continuing to ply their trade. Sure, we may not be able to change the government and society overnight. But we can change ourselves. Piracy may be impossible to completely eradicate, but we can stop being part of the problem and prevent it from worsening.

At the very least, we have to try, right?

Posted by Joey Alarilla :: 9:59 AM :: 8 Comments:

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