Guest post: Stealing isn’t saving

(The following guest post was written by Alex Swartsel, who is a member of the Motion Picture Association of America’s communications team, and originated on the MPAA Blog. It was written in response to Janko Roettgers’ piece “Sorry, Hollywood: Piracy may make a comeback,” which we published Thursday.)

The disappointing thing about Janko Roettgers’s post for GigaOm’s NewTeeVee section yesterday is its casual promotion of the idea that stealing movies, TV shows and music is a perfectly acceptable way to save money.

Roettgers writes at length about recent changes in online video offerings, but his real point is this:

“The U.S. credit ratings downgrade, tumbling stocks and international instability have made not just financial analysts nervous this week. Consumers are also starting to wonder whether we’re about to enter another recession. Whenever that happens, people start to tighten their belts and cut unnecessary expenses — like paying for movies and TV shows… With memories of the housing slump still fresh, many people could simply return to BitTorrent and download movies for free instead of going to the movies or paying for VOD.” (emphasis ours)

There’s no question that when people aren’t certain about their finances — because they’re worried they or someone in their family will lose their job, or the prices of gas or other essentials will rise significantly — they change how they think about expenses and spend money. But if Roettgers had written that financially insecure families will shoplift clothes from a department store this fall to save on back-to-school costs for their children, he would be laughed out of the proverbial building, right?

T-shirts and jeans aren’t made out of zeroes and ones, at least not yet. But just because movies and TV shows and songs can now be packaged and distributed as data, not just as film reels or vinyl records or DVDs, and can be acquired or distributed with a few clicks of a mouse, doesn’t mean that the labor and time and money that went into making them is any less meaningful.

We doubt many people will subscribe to the kind of intellectual dishonesty that suggests that it’s fine — or really, that it’s inevitable — to steal as a way of saving. But it’s troubling that by suggesting that stolen content available on rogue sites and elsewhere is just another substitute good, Roettgers is tacitly arguing that content theft is legitimate and socially acceptable. Truth is, it’s neither.

Photo courtesy of (CC BY-SA 2.0) Flickr user Seth Anderson.