Audiovisual Piracy, Informal Economy, and Cultural Globalization (3-3)
This article written by Tristan Mattelart of University of Paris for the International Journal of Communication and which puts into perspective the results of a collective research University of Paris project carried out in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Colombia, Bulgaria, and Russia. It analyzes the nature of the more or less informal networks through which pirated audiovisual products circulate, the modes through which they are appropriated, and the changes occurring with the rise of Internet.
After the fall of communist regimes in these two countries, the black market networks satisfied consumers’ cravings for Western cultural products, stirred by decades of banning. And in this continuity, piracy has emerged, from the early 1990s onwards, as a “widespread practice to fill the gaps of the new merchant system,” and to circumvent its logics of exclusion in the market of cultural products.
What these studies illustrate, then, is the “strong social demand” existing in these countries for pirate products—a social demand which tends to be disregarded by the reports written by the organizations defending the interests of copyright-based industries. In this respect, piracy of symbolic goods cannot be seen solely through the lens of a “criminal activity.” It is also intimately interwoven into the social, cultural, and political structures of the countries surveyed.
Operating through the structures of informal economy, that interweaving extends into the economic fabric of these countries. Indeed, the investigations carried out in the framework of our project shed light on the existence of an informal economy of communications that, despite playing a central role in the circulation of cultural products at a world scale, has remained largely under-researched.
The Informal Economy of Communication: An Underground Economy?
The premise on which our research project was based was that the networks of this informal economy gave substance to an “underground economy,” which was organizing, in large part, the supply of technologies, sounds, and images in the countries of the South and the East. However, it quickly became clear that the reality was far more complex: Informal economic activities, although often going through unofficial channels, also develop out in the open, with the networks of this economy being, for their part, closely intertwined with those of the official economy. In this context, the use of the metaphor of the underground to describe the realities of the parallel circulation of cultural goods should not lead one to think that what is at stake is only a marginal part of the communication economy of these countries
Studying the phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa, Chéneau-Loquay explains that the “informal economy of communication,” which has “a strong presence in the urban environment,” far from being “a declining marginal or underground economy,” constitutes “a growing powerful sector with which the state and formal industries have to deal.
Studying another, though diametrically different, context in Russia, Kiriya makes more or less the same point. He strongly criticizes research devoted to “transition” countries tending to present the informal sector, including piracy, “as an abnormal phenomenon bound to disappear with the development of the market economy.” Against these “linear visions postulating the disappearance of piracy at the end of the process of ‘transition,’” the author suggests that the informal economy of communication in Russia, far from being a “peripheral sector,” is “a central component of formal economy,” firmly inscribed in the communications landscape.
In the countries considered, formal and informal economies thus must be seen as intermingled. In his investigation in Tunisia, Ferjani shows well how much the boundaries between the two are blurred. Are not pirated audiovisual products sold in small shops to the creation of which the state itself contributed? Are not these products also available on the shelves of the Tunisian subsidiaries of some of the main French supermarkets—Carrefour, Géant, or Monoprix.
In Russia, some of the same companies that manufacture legal CDs or DVDs also produce high-quality pirated discs
By Alula Berhe Kidani, 30/07/2012