By Yasmine Hung
As the entertainment industry becomes increasingly globalized and digitized, so too have methods of illicit media distribution. But is this truly as damaging to content producers as we’ve been led to believe? Let’s take a moment to consider how much of the entertainment that we consume is both foreign and illegally downloaded. Regardless of your level of interest in foreign movies or music, chances are that most of us have participated in this trend of illegal media distribution in some way or another. In order to explore this in more depth, I will take a look at media piracy as a whole and then more specifically at both Nigeria and Japan.
Piracy on a Global Scale
Whether we feel guilty about it or not, we all know that piracy is an act in which we should not be involved. If we had a pure conscience as consumers, we would do everything in our power to find legal copies and purchase them through any means available. Unfortunately, foreign media is more often than not simply unavailable legally in our resident countries due to the lack of economic incentives to license content.
Exporting mass media in the 20th century required a legal infrastructure which recognized intellectual property and international trade negotiations. Governments played significant roles in regulating the content that entered its borders, giving them control over citizens’ access to information and entertainment. This is a power that particularly autocratic countries can use to censor messages that they find objectionable. In countries like China, where censorship heavily restricts the import of foreign media, movies are often banned or severely edited to remove unpatriotic messages. The introduction of new media technology has changed the ways in which media can be transported across borders worldwide.
Much of the current discourse on piracy focuses on the damage to the economy as a result of illegal downloads and the redistribution of pirated movies and films. The Recording Industry Association of America released a report saying that losses to the music industry due to peer-to-peer file sharing and the sale of pirated CDs range from anywhere between 7 to 50 percent during the late 1990s to early 2000s. The film industry is likewise heavily impacted, especially in places like China where college students consume 75 percent of their movies through unlawful channels. However, the issue with calculating lost revenue caused by piracy is that there is virtually no way of knowing whether people who download or purchase pirated media would even pay for legal versions if they were easily available. It is impossible to account for the potential earnings that are lost due to file sharing because citizens might not have been able to purchase them through legal means.
An even more radical way of looking at piracy is to recognize that the illegal distribution of copyrighted materials can help pave the way in opening potential markets. This is achieved by reaching wider audiences and creating higher demands for music and film in regions throughout the world. These new markets, in turn, serve as a popularity indicator and this framework is especially salient in the context of media globalization. While the United States continues to dominate international media output and exert its cultural hegemony over the world, the flow of transnational media and culture is not as unipolar as it would appear.
Second to only India’s Bollywood, Nigeria’s film industry, Nollywood, is one of the world’s most prolific film industries. It boasted earnings of $3 billion in 2014 and generates a staggering average of 2000 films a year. These movies are produced on the most threadbare of budgets ranging from $10,000 to $75,000 (compared to around $250 million in Hollywood) and sell for about a dollar or two. They also have accordingly low production values as the majority of the films are shot with VHS recorders or on digital cameras.
The industry is mostly informal with few legal regulations for distribution. In a country where few can afford to regularly go to the cinema for their entertainment fix, the majority of these films are released directly to DVD and sold for home consumption in market stalls and warehouses. As it turns out, the DVD format for these films makes it particularly convenient for pirates to reproduce and sell them on the black market. In as little as two weeks after the initial release of a typical film, pirated copies can be found being sold, often producing as many copies as those which were legitimately printed.
Media scholar Henry Jenkins describes in his book “Spreadable Media” the highly ambivalent relationship between the content producers and pirates. The rampant distribution of pirated DVDs has a disproportionately large impact on the producers who have to work with such slim budgets. These discs reach an estimated audience of millions throughout Africa and in select European countries. Though pirated copies are sold in Nigeria, the majority of them end up in African nations like Ghana, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Zambia, The Democratic Republic of Congo and African supermarkets in Greece and North America. Pirated copies have great appeal among audiences due to the unique perspectives that they portray. Stories often incorporate pan-African values which illustrate the difficulties of everyday life, political debate and stress the importance of African identity in a continent that was freed from colonialism only in the latter half of the previous century.
In response to this volatile and unstable, but potentially lucrative industry, Nigerian filmmakers have attempted to coopt government authorities in order to gain control over the distribution of their work and ensure that profits from pirated copies end up in their hands. In recent years, producers have campaigned for stronger copyright laws and increased crackdowns on illicit distributors of the films. Where the Nigerian government has lacked the capability to create legal infrastructure and enforcement for media distribution, African digital startup companies have attempted to fill the gap. With the internet becoming increasingly accessible, producers have partnered with these startups to facilitate global online distribution. iROKOtv is one such example, delivering content worldwide for a subscription rate of $5 per month. They are able to reach global audiences much easier than pirated content ever could and assist in generating profit for both distributors and producers.
The popularity of Japanese anime is another phenomenon that has been aided significantly by piracy. Not counting popular children’s shows like “Pokémon” and “Sailor Moon,” anime has an extensive niche fandom in the US. Early fansubbing groups translated Japanese audio into English subtitles and made use of VHS tapes to circulate anime that were popular in Japan among Western fans. The legality of these circulation methods can certainly be questioned, particularly because tapes were often directly copied from Japanese ones and sent to the US. However, this was responsible for the creation of an early anime subculture in America during a time when licensed English-subtitled anime was almost impossible to find.
As internet technology developed and the number of people who used it for entertainment began to grow, fansubbers uploaded these illegal versions onto the internet in digital format and in much larger volumes than ever before. Simultaneously, fan-created works of art inspired by anime proliferated among fan communities on websites like DeviantArt. Fan-made parodies on YouTube have also grown increasingly popular.
This unlawful fan practice applies to Japanese comics as well. Scanlation groups often buy physical copies of manga, scan them into digital images, and replace Japanese text with English translations before uploading them onto manga sharing sites. The dual combination of accessibility to essentially free anime and booming fan communities gave anime a great deal of visibility and traction from the early 2000s through the current day. Certain anime series are still making a relatively mainstream impact in the U.S. today.
The proliferation of freely accessible anime and manga has caused growing alarm among Japanese animation production companies and English-language distributors alike. In response, the past few years have seen the growth of legal streaming services online in an effort to make subscriptions an attractive option to pirating. Crunchyroll has increased its services so that many on-air series can be watched at the same time they are broadcast in Japan, with the profits going directly to Japanese animation studios. The fan response to this has been, for the most part, positive. Many anime bloggers actively encourage fans to purchase subscriptions in order to support the industry in Japan, which has been declining domestically.
What sets anime piracy apart from its Nigerian counterpart is that anime pirates assist in creating part of the discourse. While the main goal of Nollywood film pirates is to make money, fansubbing and scanlation groups in Japan are often part of the fandom themselves. This engenders a greater feeling of obligation to reverse some of the damages that they have caused the anime industry. A select few fansubbing groups ask for donations in order to obtain legal copies in Japanese in order to add their own subtitles. However, the vast majority of fansubbing groups reject the idea of taking in donations or service fees for their work. Instead, they see themselves as dedicated fans who seek to make unlicensed anime more prominent and abide by an informal code of ethics. Within this pact, they promise to remove any fan translated works once licensed translations become available for purchase. Most scanlation groups include disclaimer pages with their manga uploads stating that their works will be removed once the original Japanese works become licensed for English translation. They also actively encourage manga readers to purchase their own copy if they have enjoyed it, thus effectively creating a try-before-you-buy system.
Where Do We Go from Here?
Whether piracy will continue to serve as a pioneer for transnational media distribution in other regions of the world remains to be seen. That doesn’t deny the undeniably important role it has played in the burgeoning popularity of places like Nollywood. Piracy as a new business model is, of course, far from perfection. While it has increased the visibility of otherwise niche forms of entertainment, the distribution patterns still remain unbalanced. Nollywood has virtually no presence in the English-speaking film sphere and online anime distributors operate mainly in English which leave a vast majority of non-English speaking fans around the world without any means to watch licensed content. But, with more and more people accessing entertainment online, it is inevitable that the traditional means of media distribution will have to adapt to the changing demands of the future.
Image by Paul Keller