x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

If the hottest trends in viewing are unavailable, who loses?

What do My Fair Lady and Game of Thrones have in common More than you might think - and it's got to do with pirates.

The year was 1956. In a darkened room in Sydney, Australia, a few people were huddled around a record player listening to the soundtrack of the hit Broadway musical My Fair Lady.

But what they were doing was technically illegal. Under the rights agreement struck between the creators of the show and the owners of the yet-to-be-staged Australian production, the American soundtrack could not be sold Down Under. Australians would have to wait until the show opened in Melbourne, when an album featuring the local cast would be released for sale.

But this long-player had been "smuggled" into the country by somebody who visited New York. The listening party was a hush-hush affair, and those in attendance were thrilled to be hearing something new and exciting before anybody else in the country - and slightly nervous about being arrested.

I know this story because a now-dead friend of mine was a party to this early act of what we might now call "piracy".

Although it's not exactly analogous to the illegal downloading of movies and television series - at least in this case, money changed hand for the record - the anecdote is instructive.

Now, as then, when something is hot, it's hot. When enough people want something badly enough, somebody comes up with something to make it available.

Today, it's the torrent technology that allows TV shows and movies to be shared with anybody, anywhere with a broadband internet connection.

Of course, once people have the means of doing something illegal, they just need the excuse.

Many would argue that there are different degrees of criminality. People would not steal bullion from a bank, for instance, but might take a pen from the office stationery cupboard. Most wouldn't deliberately kill another person, but many drive in dangerous ways that could conceivably cause a fatal accident.

People rationalise this behaviour on the grounds that it gives them what they want and it probably won't hurt anybody else.

And so it is with downloading. The TV series Game of Thrones is the current must-have download, and debate has sprung up about whether this is an entirely bad thing, given anecdotal evidence that some pirates will purchase DVDs and other merchandise when it becomes legally available.

But, clearly, that cannot be true in every case; a lot of people are getting a free ride, and big costume dramas don't make themselves. The creators, cast and crew are all being cheated of income - and possibly the funds to make further episodes.

Pirates often use the excuse that the thing they are downloading isn't available where they live, or that networks are "sitting" on episodes for too long before broadcasting them.

Yet Game of Thrones is shown on pay TV in the UAE, so there is no excuse, apart from impatience, for downloading it illegally.

Still, what if piracy were the only way to see a niche programme that is not screened here and is unavailable by other legal means? Is it then acceptable? Is it ethically OK for, say, an expatriate in Abu Dhabi to download a programme that is available on free-to-air television back home? Who loses?

Answer: the sponsors who support commercial television but whose advertisements are of market-specific relevance and, in any case, have probably been stripped from the torrented version.

It could also be that a local broadcaster does, indeed, own the rights to the show, but has chosen not to screen it.

And that's where the frustration factor comes into play. In this brave new broadband world, consumers don't want to wait many months to see a show that is all the buzz on social media right now.

Given that it's logistically impossible for every pirate to be found and punished - and doing so would not be high on the authorities' list of priorities - it's surely time for producers and broadcasters to agree on a compromise solution.

Assuming that many people are prepared to pay for immediate gratification, surely a way can be found to make popular content legally available globally at the same time.

The producers and the local rights-holders could share the booty, and the fans could get what they want when they want it.

After all, even when he or she is wrong, the customer is always right.

 

bdebritz@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @debritz