Folks pay for iPhones and Nike shoes but why do they pirate content?

The number of young kiwis who illegally download or stream online content is alarmingly high. Those who steal content do so because they can, but this has to change.

A recent Colmar Brunton poll revealed that half of young New Zealanders (between 16 and 29 years old) admit to illegally streaming content, which is essentially online piracy. Here are the numbers:

  • 26% of young Kiwis illegally stream movies (while 31% illegally download them); and
  • 44% of young Kiwis illegally stream TV programmes (while 27% illegally download them).

There is undoubtedly a significant overlap in these numbers; some “streamers” will likely also be “downloaders” of movies, TV programmes or both.

Why steal?

The fact remains however that these numbers are alarmingly high.

So why are so many young New Zealanders illegally downloading or streaming TV programmes and movies?

The simple answer seems to be; because they can, or more importantly; because they can get away with it.

Streamers and downloaders of illegal content usually give the following reasons for their activities: why buy or hire the DVD in a few months when you can get it now for free? Some claim they want to “stick it to the man”. Others argue it is a “victimless crime” because they would otherwise not buy the content anyway.

They are just excuses and they are not acceptable. Clearly, these streamers and downloaders do not care that their activities are illegal. It seems it’s just become part of their life.

Not a victimless crime

Since when do we just grab or use something because we don’t want to pay for it, think it’s overpriced or can’t wait for it to become available in store? Would you borrow your neighbour’s newly imported Audi without their permission because you can’t afford one or can’t wait for it to become available at authorised Audi dealers in New Zealand?

Many of those claiming to “stick it to the man” will own iPhones and wear Nike shoes for which they were prepared to pay a premium. So much for snubbing big corporates.

Also, it is not a victimless crime. Although the consequences of online piracy are remote from illegal downloaders and streamers, online piracy does have an impact on the livelihood of many workers in the TV and movie industry, including in New Zealand.

We now live in a globalised world where intangible goods know no borders. Viewers are much more savvy and demanding in 2015. And rightly so. When was the last time you flicked through a TV guide and thought to yourself: “Right, I’d better make sure I’m home on Wednesday night at 8:30pm, my favourite show is on TV3”.

It is legitimate for viewers to expect that content be available in a few clicks and on multiple devices. Viewers expect to be able to watch content on their own terms. This means having the flexibility to view content when and where they want. For example, binge watching has become a cultural phenomenon.

Studios and broadcasters may still have work to do but they are adapting. Netflix released the entire first and second seasons of House of Cards on its streaming website in February 2013 and 2014 respectively. This may explain why House of Cards, a hugely popular show, did not make it into the 10 most pirated TV shows of 2013 or 2014.

House of Cards did not make it to the 10 most pirated show of 2013 or 2014

Notion that content should be free

Where does the expectation that all that content be free come from though? TV is free because ads are on 15 minutes of every hour! Most free websites have ads. Wikipedia survives with donations.

You can’t have it both ways. Surely, young Kiwis understand that. And yet, almost half of them can’t resist the temptation of online piracy. Why should they care when the chances of getting caught are low and the consequences of their actions apparently have no obvious impact on their own lives?

It seems the only thing that can stop us from illegally downloading is our own conscience. Online piracy has become a moral issue.

One could argue it is not human nature to do the right thing when there is no immediate tangible repercussion to our actions (be they legal or not). We all know carbon dioxide emissions are harmful. Yet, many of us drive petrol guzzlers. We all know speeding is dangerous. Yet, a lot of us do it.

So again, why do we do these things we know are wrong? The answer must be the same: because we can and because we think we can get away with it. The temptation is simply too strong, and the conscience too weak.  If that is the case, surely we need to find ways to make enforcement easier, and the moral case more clear.

Sébastien Aymeric is a solicitor at James & Wells. He is based in Auckland and a member of the litigation team.