Audiovisual Piracy, Informal Economy, and Cultural Globalization (2-3)
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.
The main Southern audiovisual producers are, in this manner, also victims of piracy. The example of South Korea is illustrative. Counterfeiting and pirating networks were quick to exploit the growing popularity, since the second half of the 1990s, of the products of South Korean cultural industries in Asia—the Korean Wave—depriving these industries of a non-negligible part of their revenues, but also contributing, in turn, to the expansion of this wave.
One of the main characteristics of the pirated markets studied in our collective research project is their ability to be responsive to the transformations of the economic or technological context. Ferjani emphasizes the “reactivity of the parallel market” in Tunisia, as illustrated by the fact that, each time that new encryption methods have been introduced to guard against the pirating of satellite pay channels, “the informal market has responded by putting on sale new decoders in the following weeks”.
Likewise, the investigations carried out within the framework of our project show that one of the major factors explaining the success of the informal communication economy in the surveyed countries resides in this economy’s “proximity” to its “consumers”.
Thanks to this proximity, the merchants of the informal sector are able to adapt themselves more efficiently to the specific needs of their customers. Benchenna describes how the sellers of counterfeited DVDs in Marrakech or Casablanca adjust their offerings to meet their buyers’ expectations: The most recent Hollywood blockbusters abound in touristic places, and auteur films or documentaries can be found near the main universities, while in the poorer districts, informal markets are filled with “American B movies, Egyptian or Indian films,” and religious TV programs Gomez-Mejia explains that, in Bogota, from one pirate market to another, the catalog and quality of pirated DVDs change. In the San Andresitos, products on offer concentrate on recent Hollywood blockbusters. The packaging is reworked and includes new Spanish text to better convince Colombian customers. In the clandestine retail stores located in the backyards of the city center, the supply is much greater—“the great classics coexist with foreign and domestic commercial hits, and with other pornographic movies” - but less attention is given to the packaging of the products; they come in simple plastic sleeves.
Kiriya shows how Russian sellers of pirated DVDs segment their products by offering different qualities of the same movies, at different prices, for attracting different customer categories.
Various investigations carried out in the framework of our project also focus on the final link of the informal communication economy chain: the sellers of pirated products. Their profile is quite similar from one country to another: unemployed, qualified young men, for whom selling these products “is not an end in itself but a way to make ends meet,” as Benchenna notes about the Moroccan case. The barriers to entry in this informal business are low. One bag, “a small table, or a shelf” can be sufficient in Morocco, as in other countries, to sell pirated products.
Bahi has devoted his research to the young people selling pirated products on the campus of Cocody, in Abidjan. Their activity expresses first, he explains, “their resourcefulness,” which gives shape to a form of small “entrepreneurship” resulting from “a survival strategy.” For them, the selling of pirated audiovisual products is also a means of recovering their “dignity,” for they “do not depend from the resources of their family anymore.” More, according to these young people, this activity is useful for Ivorian society as a whole: they feel that, in a period of crisis, they, in some way, “help their country fellows”.
Prospering in empty social spaces where public institutions, due to their lack of resources, are hardly present, their commerce can also be seen as “an act of bravado” against the state, and as a way of “contesting power and authority.
In his investigation on the markets of pirated DVDs in Bogota, Gomez-Mejia focuses on the kind of “social interactions” that take place between the buyers and the sellers. Far from been described as “thieves”—as they tend to be in the reports commissioned by the major copyright-based industries—some of these sellers are identified as cultural brokers: They are portrayed as being “cinéphile dealers,” smugglers of a heteroclite cinematic culture, varying according to the potential customers.
Breaking with univocal discourses criminalizing piracy, the investigations carried out within the framework of this collective research project thus emphasize the importance of the social, cultural, political, and economic role it plays in the countries surveyed. From one society to another, piracy constitutes a means of improving ordinary life. Or, better said, it forms part of the “survival” tactics deployed by populations—“spiritual survival for some, and material survival for others.
By Alula Berhe Kidani, 06/08/2012