The James Clayton column: fighting video piracy

James charts the assortment of ads that have played at cinemas, designed to put people off copying DVDs. Now starring James Bond...

Yarr harr! The news informs us that pirates are back on the high seas and hijacking boats filled with the booty of the prosperous and respectable, operating as a scourge to the nations of the world. Sadly, these pirates aren’t the exciting anti-heroes of film and literature fiction but a very real collective of extremely unlikeable terrorist-types who have no hesitation in trading arms and even humans beings. The coast off the anarchic country of Somalia is the current focal point for pirate activity, and it’s pretty worrying that recent captures have included a Ukrainian ship packed with Russian tanks and a Saudi Arabian oil tanker. Not only could these unscrupulous outlaws gain immense wealth through ransom demands, they could also cause catastrophic destruction and devastation.

What with the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean series and such high-profile hijackings in the popular consciousness, it would appear that the concept of piracy is enjoying a resurgence.

Piracy is also prevalent in modern times due to technological development, though it comes in a more mundane form than the Red Sea tanker-capturing. Nowadays pirates don’t even have to go to all the trouble of getting tattoos, wooden legs and scurvy and need not ever set sail on the oceans with only a sickly-looking parrot and a secret stash of rum for comfort. Today the average stereotypical pirate possibly looks more like an overweight, bored teenager buried away in their bedroom staring at a dimmed monitor and surrounded by blank discs. Blackbeard? Avast ye, no. This, me hearties, is Knock-Off Nigel: bootlegging brigand and illicit activity-doing enemy figure of our generation…

Back in the old days when home entertainment meant Watch with Mother or tiddlywinks, there were no worries about piracy. In a pre-secularised, pre-VHS society, children learned that stealing was wrong from Sunday school or from the fact that the films always showed bandits as bad; Disney as usual leading the line with crafty-but-cowardly Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Robin Hood was a bit of an exception, as was the dashing Errol Flynn in the classic black-and-white swashbuckler Captain Blood but they were combating evil monarchs. Flynn’s character is a good pirate and is instantly granted reprieve once wicked James II has ceased to sit on the throne back home in England. Hooray: now he can marry Olivia de Havilland for the umpteenth time on screen with full consent of the law.

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Now though, with the arrival of VHS, DVD and the internet, outlaw activity with regard to film and many other entertainment mediums, is vehement. Since the early ‘80s bootlegging has escalated in conjunction with technological advancement and as a result the industrial giants that produce media and profit off it have become increasingly threatened and panicky.

Things have come a long way since the little “home taping is killing music” icons first appeared on vinyl album sleeves and it all got more fun when they started making adverts designed to display the despicable, malevolent nature of piracy. “Video piracy is a crime!” exhorted those trailers that preceded the main feature on video; in the cinema, audiences were treated to shots of a satanic pit-dwelling demonic bald Orc who placed pokers in the fire before branding big burning “X” signs on the contraband around him (that was my favourite).

Presumably because such sights scared children away from multiplexes and because the local DVD dealer looked nothing like Beelzebub but rather Brian from round the corner, other anti-piracy ads of recent memory erred away from fantasy. Instead, trails take a gritty, techno-flecked approach and portray the wrongdoers as backstreet criminals or basement petty crooks. Trying to be tough apparently wasn’t efficacious either so we got those cinema spots that showed clips of a big blockbuster movie spoiled by atrocious sound and presentation and “the person who really needed to go to the loo” who subsequently stood up and blocked the covert camera operator’s line of sight.

The emphasis here is not on the illegitimacy of piracy, but on the poor return it offers and that’s a theme similarly offered up in the industry’s last gasp plan: humour. Having tried a whole array of methods, the “Knock-Off Nigel” ad was commissioned and with a catchy folk tune sung by a pub full of people stated that, basically, if you buy or trade in pirate DVDs you are clearly a cheapskate loser who deserves to be humiliated.

It seems that all these endeavours are ultimately failing though as it becomes easier to produce, download or just access pirate material whilst the stigma of doing so simultaneously declines.

Helpless and faced with a mass of consumers who go all glassy-eyed and envisage good old Cap’n Jack Sparrow every time you say the word “pirate”, the industry has been forced to follow things up to the logical conclusion in a last ditch attempt to combat bootlegging. After watching the feature-length package of adverts playing before the new Bond movie Quantum of Solace, I and other cinemagoers got to see the latest trailer designed to turn you off ever copying a film or buying one off someone else. Having sat through the never-ending steam of car and perfume commercials, by now desperate to just see some James Bond action that didn’t have a brand name in the corner or unconvincing slogan as accompaniment, the spectator sees the segment at a point when they are probably getting really hacked off and impatient. So far, not so good, but does it successfully do the job and will it manage to make audiences forswear supporting felonious film distribution?

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The new trail takes a totally different approach to the hellish fury of previous efforts in that instead of going for serious tone and scorching flames or even any light-hearted “Knock-Off Nigel” shtick, it errs towards the emotive. As with the roll of commercials that have preceded it, the images are all from Quantum of Solace but there are also shots of behind-the-scenes action, camera operators, technical workers and special effects staff in there as well. The montage of 007 moviemaking magic is accompanied by Daniel Craig’s voice, and the person who has the honour of portraying James Bond acts as our guiding voice of authority, our Jiminy Cricket disembodied narrator of conscience in the clip. The moral message is this: support piracy and these hard-working people at the bottom of the movie-production chain have their livelihoods damaged. Forget about the fat-cat executives: it’s these poor grafters whose immense efforts are undermined and who you are sticking fingers up to if you choose to engage in bootleg activity.

After the tantric bombardment of the advert blast that has come just before, audience members are at their lowest ebb. As Mr. Craig cries foul and relates his tragic tale, I expect that many spectators will be reduced to tears in sympathy at the injustice of it all. Maybe by bringing in Bond and some boo-hoo sob-storytelling and sticking Satan back in his cellar, the movie industry may have got the wind back in its sails in its odyssey against bootlegging villainy. Pass me a hankie and make ‘em walk the plank. Remember, video piracy is a crime kids; savvy?

James’ column appears every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.