In 2002, I was studying engineering in a small town in Madhya Pradesh, still trying to come to terms with my sexuality. The internet was relatively new, but already peer-to-peer networks offered content that was not available locally. I chanced upon an American show called Queer As Folk on Kazaa, the P2P website popular in those days. About a gay couple, QAF was my introduction to gay life, its charms and seductions, yes, but, more importantly, its sheer presence that I had no reference point to match with in my immediate surroundings.
I was reminded of my own and, if I may add, innocuous share of illegal downloading on hearing news of the arrest last week of Artem Vaulin, the brain behind the web’s most popular torrent website, Kickass Torrents. The cat-and-mouse game between authorities and torrent websites has yielded the former its biggest catch yet.
Before it was shut down, Kickass Torrents, abbreviated as KAT, let users download a slew of copyrighted content, from films to television shows, music to magazines. Its sleek interface and vocal community made it a popular destination for content in various languages and configurations (choose your pixels). It is reported that the site offered copyright content worth $1 billion.
Yet, for all the legal action taken against torrent sites, they spring back in no time. Both Pirate Bay and isoHunt, torrent sites that have been raided in the past, are active today, and mirrors of KAT have already appeared online. While no new content is available for now, administrators of these mirror sites, who hail Vaulin as a new-age Robin Hood, promise to have a fully functional KAT running soon.
Online piracy is only the latest iteration of content theft that goes back at least to the 15th century, when Gutenberg invented the printing press and enabled the copying of written content. When it comes to films, video libraries performed the role before the advent of technology. Before the 2000s, video stores peddled the latest hits from around the world on CDs, a scenario that feels decidedly quaint only 16 years later.
With the advent of Netflix globally and of other pay-to-watch services like Hotstar in India, a lot of original content can now be viewed legally without burning a hole in one’s pocket. At the time of writing, Hotstar was offering the latest American shows, including the critical darling The Night Of, as well as acclaimed miniseries like Show Me A Hero and Mildred Pierce for a flat monthly fee of Rs 200.
Why then do torrent services remain so popular? One, of course, is plain convenience. Go online and download any show from any corner of the earth within minutes. Most Indian fans of Game of Thrones, rather than wait a full day to catch the latest Season 6 episode on Star World Premiere HD, downloaded it online where it was available within hours of its American broadcast.
But convenience is not all. There is a lot of content out there that simply does not make it to certain markets legally. Take, for example, the British gay shows, Cucumber and Banana. Broadcast on Channel 4 in 2015, they are too niche to be offered on Indian screens. Discussions of plot twists and character arcs by eager British fans on online forums prod interested viewers at the other end of the world to torrent such programmes.
Torrents often throw up unexpected treats. From graphic novels like Maus to recordings of Broadway productions, there is a veritable treasure trove of content on torrent websites.
They allow the mofussil user, such as my younger self, access to content that is generally unavailable in small towns. While metropolis residents have access to film festivals, a film aficionado friend in Bhubaneswar has been able to watch the best of world cinema only due to torrents. None of his local libraries stock films by such giants as Abbas Kiarostami (Close-up, Taste of Cherry) or Krzysztof Kieslowski (Dekalog, The Double Life of Veronique).
It’s about gaining access, not saving money
To be sure, content generation and distribution takes resources, so it is natural that content producers wish to be compensated for their work. However, online piracy is as much about getting quick access to beloved content as it is about penny-pinching. When KAT was raided a day before the release of the latest Rajinikanth movie, Kabali, wags joked that the timing was an outcome of the superstar’s messianic powers.
But no amount of piracy can dent the commercial dominance of a Rajinikanth or a Salman Khan, giving short shrift to the notion that piracy is an unmitigated evil eating into the profits of the film industry. Even adult comedies, such as the Kya Kool Hain Hum franchise, which see huge downloads on torrent sites, more than recoup their investments at the box office.
The battle between content producers and pirates will continue, with newsworthy pit stops like the KAT fracas along the way. The reach of technology and the sheer numbers of its adherents will ensure that piracy remains a fixture of our online habits. Content producers often imagine the pirate as a wicked mercenary looking to destroy their industries. They ought to know that he could just as easily be a solitary viewer hoping to catch the magic of an alternative way of being, unavailable to him in real life or reel.