justify piracy

When musicians justify piracy

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If you won’t respect somebody’s art enough to pay for it, what makes you think you deserve the same in return?

I know what I’m about to say is going to ruffle a lot of feathers because I posted something about this on my personal Facebook page and it stirred up a proverbial hornet’s nest.

A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that I had recently seen multiple posts on Facebook from artists and songwriters asking for information on how to “jailbreak” devices like the Amazon Firestick and the Google Chromecast. Those are the gadgets you plug into your television to stream video from services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime. Jailbreaking those devices allows users to download applications so they can watch pirated content, like movies currently in theaters.

I had a big problem with this because I had seen past posts from many of these same artists expressing outrage about people not wanting to pay for their music, how streaming companies like Spotify and Google undervalue songwriters, and about how their family and friends won’t support them by coming to their shows or buying their music.

So the question I posed to them on Facebook was this: If you won’t respect somebody’s art enough to pay for it, what makes you think you deserve the same in return?

You would have thought I had thrown a grenade into a room full of kittens.

Look, I knew that post was going to make some artists — particularly those I was calling out — feel uncomfortable. But what amazed me was how many of them ultimately attempted to justify the behavior of stealing art.

One singer-songwriter wrote several lengthy replies blaming the overpriced cost of cable television as the reason why people jailbreak the devices, which I agree is a big part of the reason people are tempted to pirate the content, but she was completely missing the point: this is a matter of theft of art, which is something every single musician and songwriter should be against. That particular string of replies became so heated, the artist in question eventually deleted her comment from the thread.

When I brought up the hypocrisy of many artists on this subject in another thread, one artist attempted to argue that some bands wouldn’t be nearly as popular as they are had fans not been illegally downloading their music. It melts my brain to think that this artist’s perception of the morality of stealing art sways based upon the success some victims enjoyed during their career.

And, yes, I used the word victim to describe them because that is exactly what they are. Just like the artists using these “jailbreak” devices would be victims if somebody were stealing their music.

Imagine if one of your songs were licensed for a television series and you were supposed to get paid each time that show aired or was streamed on Netflix. Nice work, if you can get it. Now think about the money you would not receive if tens of thousands of people were streaming it illegally.

It doesn’t seem like a victimless crime now, does it? If Netflix reneged on its contract and decided not to pay you for the plays you received, you’d be in court suing them. This scenario amounts to the same thing: your art is being enjoyed — via theft — you’re not getting paid, and you have no recourse to recoup what you’re owed.

And that is the thing. All of these people who work on television shows and movies are artists, just like you. They are actors and actresses who moved to Hollywood and worked hard to make it, spending day after day being rejected in auditions while family members told them to give it up and “get a real job.”

They are directors, videographers, composers, screenwriters, novelists who have had their books adapted, and artists who had their music licensed. These are the artists being screwed out of money they earned. Their art might not look the same as what you create, but it is still art.

And allow me to point out here that, much like in the music business, the vast majority of artists working in television and film are not celebrities raking in millions. Almost all of them are scraping by, just like many of you.

I know the number of artists and songwriters jailbreaking these devices is most certainly a minority, but the rest of you, those scratching and clawing for every single penny your art puts into your pocket, have an obligation to call these people out when you see them doing this.

As a community of artists, we must do better when it comes to piracy of any kind … not just our own.


Wade Sutton is the founder of Rocket to the Stars, an artist services record label with clients around the world. He is also the creator and host of The Six-Minute Music Business Podcast, which was named by CD Baby as one of “five music-business podcasts artists can’t live without.” Wade was a featured speaker at the 2018 Music Entrepreneur Conference at Harvard University.

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6 thoughts on “When musicians justify piracy

  1. Take two, as my post got mangled somehow:

    >Sixto Rodriguez (Sugarman) saw no money from his 20-year sleeper album not because of piracy, but because Sussex Records simply didn’t tell him about it. Demand for his album was started by a bootleg tape.People who pirate on a truly damaging industrial scale – fake CDs, etc, are going to steal whether it’s music or Mercedes-Benzes. And if villains can make more money from supplying jailbroken media devices, they will. The demand is for cheaper access, not for the media itself.<

    Actually, there are some basic things that could be done, like enforcing the existing laws — that would be a start. For example, why does Google still feature pirated stuff in its searches? Although they don't occupy the first page or two, all you have to do is keep clicking to pages four, five and six, and you'll see them pop up.

    At least, that's what I've found, as an author/co-author of two books. And, while I know that Google the mega-bully never stops hungering for data about us, and never stops dreaming up new ways of tracking us — even as they fiercely resist revealing how they do business — they could certainly stop giving the pirates a platform to do their thing. Then all that rhetoric of "community" and "sharing" might not carry such a horrible stink of hypocrisy, especially when it comes from those particular entities.

    However, I also think that the battle cry for "cheap access" — as our first commenter so eloquently puts it — masks a deeper problem, one that started about 30 years ago, when the rallying cry of "cheap, cheap, cheap" led to the global outsourcing of jobs, the explosion of adjuncts at universities, and the growth of temp agencies to pimp out applicants at poverty level wages, to name just three things that helped make life significantly worse for the majority.

    But I also don't buy the idea that we should just give in, and let that state of affairs remain as natural as breathing. It will take a concerted effort to change — starting with education, and possibly, the breakup of all these large entities that have been allowed to exist as private, not public goods — but that sounds a lot better to me than giving up and letting nature take its course.

    Sure, it's a divisive issue, but let's not forget where most of the divisiveness originates — such as in-laws of mine, who regularly patronize bit torrent states out of some romantic notion of "sticking it to the Man" (never mind that the Man continues to sell his gadgets by the bucketload). Wade, thanks for your post, a timely reminder of that old saying, "If the shoe fits, you're probably wearing it."

  2. You are making a grave mistake I think in equating jailbreaking with piracy. Those are two separate things. Just because someone tries to remove artificial defects and limitations in a device they own doesn’t mean it must be used for piracy, there are many other reasons for jailbreaking. The best would of course be for no one to ever buy devices that are defective by design, but as long as these devices unfortunately do exist jailbreaking is a necessity.

  3. Were people who pirate music ever going to buy it in the first place?

    Sixto Rodriguez (Sugarman) saw no money from his 20-year sleeper album not because of piracy, but because Sussex Records simply didn’t tell him about it. Demand for his album was started by a bootleg tape.

    People who pirate on a truly damaging industrial scale – fake CDs, etc, are going to steal whether it’s music or Mercedes-Benzes. And if villains can make more money from supplying jailbroken media devices, they will. The demand is for cheaper access, not for the media itself.

    The music industry laying guilt trips on the unknown percentage of people who won’t pay for their ‘product’ like they had to in the old days, while streaming royalties are almost infinitesimal, breaks my heart, not.

  4. Wade,

    This is a very divisive topic as you mentioned but it shouldn’t be.
    Art is to be enjoyed but respected and I couldn’t agree more that there are many whom are not the few that are mega millionaire status. We all need to support one another as best we can. At least with streaming it’s similar to music, for shows and film now. Yes you can’t have your content available on multiple platforms as we can with music but it’s a lower barrier of entry than relying on BluRay/DVD sales.

    Stealing is stealing and you can not objectively believe it’s ok to do it but get angry when your particular art isn’t being supported financially.

  5. Amen! I see the same thing in the music software market, where musicians complain about not being paid fairly for their music, while using illegal copies of DAW software and “cracked” plug-ins to record and produce that very same music. Stealing is stealing, no matter how it’s being done. Thanks for shining a spotlight on this important issue.

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