The Pitfalls of being a Pirate

Video Piracy. Bootlegging. Illegal duplication. Torrenting. It has many names but they all mean the same thing: the unlawful reproduction of a copyrighted IP (intellectual property) whether for financial gain or not. Now I could go into the moral wrongs of it here (companies going out of business, IP creators/owners losing money etc.) but I won’t. instead I want to look at it from another angle. I want to look at it strictly from an aesthetic angle. I want to talk about quality. But before I do that, I want to tell you a little story.

In the early 90s I used to (and still do) read a self-proclaimed magazine of the ‘macabre and the fantastic’ that covered all things horror related. In the dark days before the Internet as we know it, magazines like this became my one-stop destination for all things gore related. True to form, there was an issue in particular that held a huge fascination for me: the Video Nasties special…

For those who could only be measured in micrometers at the time, the Video Nasties scare of the early 80s concerned the uncut/unrated ‘filth’ that was freely available to rent on video shelves. The media at large screamed the usual “Ban this sick film!” headline on an almost daily basis. Though it began in the UK, it was not long before the hoopla hit here too. It gave rise to the ‘Video Nasties List’ – a directory of over 70 movies that were deemed unfit for human eyes and which were subsequently outlawed. For most, this would be a list for movies to avoid; but for others – me, included – it became a kind of shopping list. What has all this to do with piracy, you might well ask? I am getting to that…

It was while out combing the Xtra-vison stores in 1991 that I happened to come across one of the aforementioned titles: a badly made little Mexican gem called ‘Night of the Bloody apes’. It was pre-cert and a genuine factory-made item. After overpaying twenty pounds for it (a lot of money for a used tape in 1991), I watched it that night and was not impressed. There was a scalping scene – done by a Mexican wrestler wearing a gorilla mask – which consisted of a wig being pulled off a bald man’s head revealing the gory spectacle of… strawberry jam. I wanted my twenty pounds back.

Instead, though, I decided to put an ad in the above magazine offering the movie up for sale: best offer gets the Bloody Apes tape. A guy from the UK was keen on the item and sent me five horror movies copied to VHS – Maniac, House on the Edge of the park, Zombie Flesh Eaters, amongst others. Four of them were possibly fourth generation versions with imagery so bad it would make the fuzziest YouTube video look like ‘The Godfather’. The remaining movie seemed to be recorded from a tripod-mounted camera directly from a TV. I was appalled. I was furious. I sent the tapes back and ended up eventually trading the Bloody Apes flick with an honest Swede for a genuine VHS tape of ‘Dawn of the Dead’, which, though subtitled, was completely uncut.

The point of this little tirade is even though the guy from the UK was willing to give me five VHS copies for one movie, it did not mean they would actually look or sound good. But it gave a whole new meaning to the term ‘quantity over quality’: you get what you pay for, or as in my case, trade for. So even though I’m talking about VHS tapes, the principle is still the same now: when you download movies from torrents or buy bootleg copies from dubious sources, you are getting a vastly inferior product. In the case of DVDs, they are in all likelihood limited by the amount of data that can be fit onto a standard blank disc; in the case of torrents they are limited by bandwidth. Torrents may claim to be a ‘HD Blu Ray rip’ of the latest big release, but they are not. In most cases, they are a heavily compressed Divx/Avi/Xvid file with a picture reduced from 1080p to 720p or even less and at fraction of the bit rate. The same goes for the accompanying sound: to save space, the previously uncompressed sound format will be shrunken to an extremely ‘lossy’ format, usually a 182 kb per second or smaller mp3 file.

So the moral of this long winded story is clear: if you want to experience the best possible iteration of a movie, then go and part with some of your hard earned cash to buy the disk. Copies or torrents will not and should not do. Now, as then, the actual factory made media represents the purest, most accurate representation of a movie outside of the cinema. Just from a quality control standpoint alone, piracy embodies everything that is the nadir of value. Mediocrity should not be an option; it should not even be on the menu. Part of the problem is one of ignorant bliss – people just do not realise how vastly reduced in quality a pirated item is. After all, if you had the choice to watch ‘Laurence of Arabia’ with its panoramic desert vistas reduced to some fuzzy, heavily condensed movie file with substandard sound and vision, or as a digitally re-mastered hi-def print, which would you chose?

In the end, a torrent is just a file of ones and zeros. It means nothing. It has no sentimental or emotional value and can be easily replaced; but an actual boxed DVD, Blu Ray, CD or even a vinyl LP, well that is something. It is not just a jumble of data; it is a time capsule representing the day/month/year in which it was made. You get an actual feel for the era of origin. It is unique to the period. After all, who would want to see somebody walking into the Pawn Stars shop with a hard drive containing all the Beatles greatest hits in mp3 format, as opposed to a vinyl LP with the original sleeve intact?

The writing is on the wall, or, in this case, on the sleeve: Buy it. Own it. Treasure it.