By Wendy Williams
“I DON’T like the term piracy as it has romantic connotations. It makes people think of Johnny Depp. It must be called robbery, and that is that.”
This is how Christopher J. Dodd, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, described the increasingly hot topic of illegal downloading to the Spanish film world at an event last year.
“Illegal downloads are robbery, plain and simple,” he added.
And he is certainly not alone in his opinion.
However, while most people know that ‘piracy’ (the act of illegally downloading music, films and software, etc) is a crime, the majority don’t view it like regular theft.
Indeed, when people like Dodd try to preach that it is no better than shoplifting, we simply don’t believe them.
‘You wouldn’t go into a record shop and steal CDs,’ the executives complain. No. But downloading is ‘sharing’ not stealing, argue many.
And in today’s world where the sheer magnitude of what is freely available on the internet has brought temptation into the home, almost every user has succumbed at some point.
Crucially however the issue is most pertinent in Spain – Western Europe’s leader in piracy.
A report revealed that piracy in Spain cost businesses 5.2 billion euros in the first half of 2010 alone.
Moreover the study by IDC Research claimed that 97.8 per cent of all music consumption in Spain was driven by illegal downloads.
Unsurprisingly, off the back of this music sales have collapsed.
In 2010 barely 10 million CDs were sold in the country – down from 71 million in 2001. And digital sales aren’t much better.
“You can have a number-one album in Spain with 3,000 sales,” remarks David Kassler, at EMI Europe.
Indeed, the US government was so concerned about the Spanish government’s ‘inadequate efforts’ to combat piracy, it made particular reference to the problem in a special 2008 report.
But as the recent controversy over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) law in America has shown – with Wikipedia organising a blackout in protest – the problem extends far beyond the Spanish border.
One of the biggest challenges has been how to balance the interests of the internet user and the industries. Indeed, it has become something of an ‘us versus them’ situation.
And for many there is a Robin Hood notion that it is, quite frankly, okay to steal from the wealthy studios and record labels, especially in this time of crisis when people cannot afford CDs or DVDs.
But as Dodd argues: “People shouldn’t think of the movie stars, but of the make-up artists, the carpenters, the roadies.
“They are the people who lose most, more so than the companies, because they can lose their livelihood.”
And now, the individuals affected are starting to speak out.
Award-winning Spanish novelist Lucia Etxebarria is even taking a bold stand, when she announced last month that she was refusing to publish any more books until Spain addressed the issue.
“My works are among the most illegally sold and downloaded,” she explained furiously.
Incredibly you can have a number one album in Spain with just 3,000 sales
Others have joined her and thankfully a new PP government seems to be taking their side.
After years of paying lip service to a new law to prevent downloading, the new government ushered in tough new legislation which could see sites trading in pirated material shut down within 10 days of a complaint.
Crucially for many, the law also allows authorities to go after file sharing — or peer to peer — sites that don’t actually host the materials.
Dubbed the Sinde Law – after the former Spanish Culture Minister Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde – businesses will be able to report infringing websites to a newly-created governmental commission.
The commission will determine whether action should be taken and, if so, will pass the complaint to a judge.
Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria insists the law is ‘to safeguard intellectual property, boost our culture industries and protect the rights of owners.’
But, as may be expected, while the crackdown on piracy has been welcomed by the creative industries it has been heavily criticised by net activists.
Victor Domingo, president of the Spanish Association of Internet Users, argued digital copies are invisible, and their worth can’t be measured like traditional products.
“If I steal a sausage from you, you no longer have it,” he explains. “But if I make a digital copy of something digital of yours, then we both have it.
“Instead of accepting that,” he added, “the industry is trying to pass a law that tramples on our rights.”
His argument is not new.
Within days of the release of the preliminary bill in 2009, journalists, bloggers and other internet professionals had created a manifesto against the Sinde Law which gained 100,000 supporters in just three days.
It was shortly followed by several demonstrations in the main Spanish cities, which continued throughout 2010 and 2011.
The ‘hacktivist’ group Anonymous even organised a protest at the Goya Awards which saw several hundred people in Guy Fawkes masks booing Sinde while applauding Alex de la Iglesia, the then president of the Spanish Film Academy, who later resigned over the issue.
The issue proved so divisive that after two years of public debate – and despite Sinde being from the film industry and staking her reputation on passing the law – the Socialist Party decided to pass the problem on to the next government.
The new government insists that it is necessary to bring the country inline with international standards against piracy.
But it is no coincidence it comes as the US plans to adopt similar tough new rules, with its controversial SOPA law.
Indeed, according to Wikileaks, the reason that Spain passed such a strict anti-piracy law was because the United States government made strong threats against the country.
In December U.S. Ambassador to Spain Alan Solomont sent a letter that threatened to downgrade Spain to a ‘priority watch’ of the world’s worst offenders which can result in sanctions.
“The government has failed to finish the job for political reasons, to the detriment of the reputation and economy of Spain,” he said. “I encourage the Government to implement the Sinde Law immediately to safeguard the reputation of Spain as an innovative country that does what it says it will.”
With the new PP government caving in to this sort of pressure, it is soon to become a lot more challenging for people to find free content.
But it doesn’t make it impossible and it certainly will not stem the tide of controversy. The internet is simply too large for it to be possible to police the content of every site.
On top of this, many activists say they won’t give up their struggle to keep the internet free of restrictions.
But for now at least the artists seem pleased.
And even Etxebarria has said she’s considering a return to writing, knowing the government is taking action.
Certainly the Sinde law is a victory for the creative industries.
But only time will tell if it can truly stop the Spanish pirates.