Piracy, the scourge of Hollywood, may have become one of America's powerful diplomatic tools – is it the new propaganda?
The American government spends a lot of time trying to tackle piracy. At home, it has worked closely with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to identify and prosecute people who have been illegally downloading movies and TV shows and, abroad, it has been using its diplomatic clout to encourage foreign governments to do the same. In the negotiations for the huge Trans-Pacific Partnership trade treaty, intellectual property rights is one of the biggest drums that America is beating. It wants to see enforcement strengthened.
In China, the US consulate has even hosted short film making competitions for young Chinese people, challenging them to make films showing the ill-effects of movie piracy in order to raise awareness of the importance of intellectual property. For the then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, under whose auspices the competition took place, there is no division between global economics and international diplomacy.
Piracy, of course, is a huge deal – especially in places like China. It's tricky to find any specific figures but, according to one study by the consulting firm LEK, the “piracy rate” over there was as high as 90%. That means an estimated 90% of potential revenue in the market has been lost due to bootlegs and downloads. In Russia, it is as high as 79%. For all intents and purposes, pirated content is near ubiquitous in China, as it is in many other countries.
This is no doubt bad for the Hollywood movie studios and the people who produce content who want to be paid for their graft, but is this the most important thing we should be worrying about? I want to challenge the conventional wisdom and ask: could piracy actually be a good thing, because of the benefits it brings to international diplomacy?
”International relations is not just a game of who has the most fighter jets or nuclear weapons: so-called “soft power” is also crucially important.”
International relations is tricky business, and it is within the interests of every country to maximise its influence around the world – so it has more clout when negotiating, and more legitimacy when pursuing its own interests. But international relations is not just a game of who has the most fighter jets or nuclear weapons: so-called “soft power” is also crucially important. This is how scholars describe the complex mixture of economic and cultural influence that can beef up a country’s standing on the world stage.
Policy advisor and academic Simon Anholt, who specialises in cultural relations between countries, explained to me that “making a cultural impact matters is because, according to all my research, if people perceive that your country has a rich culture (and that can mean cultural heritage in the UNESCO sense, or cultural production, whether “high” culture or “popular” culture, or both at the same time), then they are measurably more likely to admire and respect your country and desire to engage with it in some way. And that liking/admiration translates into more tourism, foreign direct investment, trade, diplomacy, major events, productive migration in both directions, and more cultural relations.”
In other words, whilst it might sound fluffier than the business of tanks and bombs, culture matters.
Traditionally, diplomacy has taken place between the elites of different countries: presidents talking to other presidents, ambassadors hosting prime ministers, and so on. However, “public diplomacy” is becoming increasingly important. This is when a state doesn’t just try to negotiate with politicians, but instead appeals directly to the people of a foreign country.
The idea is that, by engaging directly with foreign populations, they can influence the mood of the people who are implicitly keeping the elites in power (whether in a democracy through elections, or in a dictatorship by not being motivated to rise up and depose those in power). In other words, if America can persuade the populations of countries that perhaps have hostile (or potentially hostile) governments that the American worldview is the best, then it will both undermine governments that reject that worldview and bolster support for American efforts to affect change in America’s favour.
For America, Hollywood movies and TV shows are a huge part of this effort. President Obama has said as much himself. In 2013, he told an audience at Dreamworks Animation that: “Believe it or not, entertainment is part of our American diplomacy”. This isn’t hard to believe – and foreign governments know it too, which is why censorship in some of the world’s dodgiest regimes is rife.
"Germans having easy access to West German TV was the “final nail in the coffin” for the East German regime."
This isn’t a new phenomenon. When trying to explain the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is often claimed that exposure to Western content helped push that process along.DW reckons that East Germans having easy access to West German TV was the “final nail in the coffin” for the East German regime. It quotes Dr Jochen Staadt from Berlin’s Freie Universität:
"To those who were unable to leave the country, the constant awareness of this parallel world and the information on world affairs provided by TV, which was at odds with the propaganda peddled by East German media, were the reasons why the events of 1989 came about."
Although watching West German TV didn’t require any blank DVDs or BitTorrent downloads, it was essentially the same phenomenon as we have today: the unauthorised viewing of copyrighted material.
In the old Soviet Union, as early as the 1950s, x-ray film was being used to pirate Western records by the likes of The Beatles. By the end of the Cold War, unauthorised screenings of Western content were so rife that, in 1991 when the Eastern Bloc was collapsing, the American entertainment industry called for the Soviets to clamp down on piracy. With an astonishing lack of self-awareness, Jack Valenti, who at the time was President of the MPAA, asked the Soviets to use their police force and courts (the institutions that had been responsible for decades of terror and oppression) to prosecute Russians who dared watch western films.
Liberation through piracy
That’s the past, but what about the present? Could current Western content be used to undermine hostile governments and encourage people in “unfriendly” countries to be more supportive of a Western view? And what would be the role of specifically pirated content? I think it is reasonable to hypothesise that piracy could have a beneficial impact, as it accelerates the distribution of Western cultural materials in otherwise restricted societies.
"China only officially allows 34 foreign films to play in Chinese cinemas every year."
“Official” distribution of cultural content can be difficult and is often mediated by governments. For example, China only officially allows 34 foreign films to play in Chinese cinemas every year and, even then, they have to be officially approved by the government. The answer, as hundreds of millions of Chinese people already know, is piracy.
The Kevin Spacey remake of House of Cards for Netflix might not be the best example of the virtues of democracy, but it sure is popular. Despite the show having no official distribution in China, within 24 hours of season 3 hitting BitTorrent, tens of thousands of Chinese people were downloading. According to piracy tracking firm Excipio, and as reported in Variety, China was the number one territory for pirate downloads.
Even some authorised productions can have unintended consequences for foreign regimes, which perhaps illustrates why countries such as China are so keen on restricting as much as they can get away with. According to Through a Screen Darkly by Martha Bayles, the Chinese release of Avatar caused some embarrassment in Beijing. It was approved for screening because the censors were fine with the film’s perceived anti-American message (it was about Americans invading and occupying another planet to extract precious resources, geddit?), but, awkwardly, Chinese audiences apparently also saw it as an allegory for their own domestic situation, in which corrupt officials forcibly evict people from their homes.
Back in 2006, Mission Impossible 3 was officially delayed in China whilst the censors wavered over whether it was too anti-Chinese. By the time the film was actually released (complete with cuts), it was speculated that most of its target audience hadalready caught the film, “controversial” content included, on pirate DVD.
Cuba and North Korea
Piracy is even helping disseminate Western culture in countries where internet connectivity is scarce. In Cuba, as recently revealed in a fascinating film by Vox, there are complex networks of people who trade USB drives and hard disks full of American content. The distribution network is so sophisticated that shows are distributed as part of dated caches of bootleg content, so that the latest films and TV shows from America can be shared and accessed in a more organised fashion.
"Even the so-called hermit kingdom, North Korea, is not immune to piracy and the Western assault on the hearts and minds of its citizens."
Even the so-called hermit kingdom, North Korea, is not immune to piracy and the Western assault on the hearts and minds of its citizens. As reported by Wired magazine, one of the most common household items in the country is known as a “Notel”. This is a portable DVD player with a fold-up screen, which can also play video files from a USB port. In the country, there is apparently a huge black market of USB drives containing South Korean and Western film and TV shows – all of which help to erode the information dominance of the government. Activist groups like the North Korean Strategy Center produce thousands of USB drives annually that have been loaded up with pirated material (including episodes of Friends and Judd Apatow comedies, apparently), and smuggle them into the country.
North Korean escapee Yeonmi Park has since credited illicit viewings of Titanic as helping teach her about the outside world – and partially motivating her escape. And yes, of course, bootleg copies of infamous North Korea comedy film The Interview have also made it into North Korea, thanks to activists who attached USB drives to balloons.
The extent of this cultural infiltration is such that the regime was forced to legalise the ownership of Notel devices, purely to stop criminalising everyone. And, as a result, many North Korea watchers believe that, whilst older generations may have been true believers in the infallibility of the Kim family, the younger generation are much savvier, educated and are more aware of the crazy situation their country is in.
Peace through BitTorrent
"Pirated TV shows and movies could be more potent because of the very fact that they are illegal."
As if to underline the point that this cultural consumption can have real, political effects, Dr Paolo Sigismondi of the University of Southern California wrote a paper back in 2009 ruminating on the impact piracy could have on international relations. He said that:
“[The] diffusion of American popular culture internationally, with or without the coordination of governments, appear [sic - JB] to be instrumental in transforming local power dynamics, potentially eroding the control of local governments, especially those implementing authoritative regimes, by providing images of alternative ways of living and thinking through the magnifying lenses of an entertainment environment.”
What’s particularly crazy, though, is that he then goes on to argue that pirated TV shows and movies could be more potent because of the very fact that they are illegal:
“The fact that it is pirated only adds value to its communication act, since audiences have consciously obtained the movie illegally. The last thing they think is that it represents a tool of cultural diplomacy, involving a foreign culture or government, and that its illegality could even make this mainstream fare more alluring than originally planned.”
In other words, it’s analogous to how parents and teachers disapproving of smoking cigarettes makes them even more desirable to rebellious teenagers.
So, ultimately, could piracy be a good thing? Imagine if there was a world without BitTorrent, or if the MPAA managed to achieve its bootleg-free utopia. It might be good for Hollywood’s bottom line, but would that really be so great for America and the West’s relationship with the rest of the world?
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."