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Is Online Piracy Good For Underground Film?

Having heard the arguments on both sides of the online piracy debate for years, my own personal feelings — for the most part — fall on the anti-piracy side.

The debate really came to a head in the underground film world a few weeks ago after the non-profit site UbuWeb was hacked. UbuWeb is a website that started by hosting orphaned and out-of-print films and videos, embedding them for free to watch.

My own feelings about UbuWeb are mixed. First thing, I don’t consider them to be a piracy site. Also, I’m generally supportive of their efforts, which allows for otherwise impossible-to-see films and videos to be viewed. For example, Jack Smith‘s Flaming Creatures, one of the most influential underground films of all time, will probably never get a proper DVD release thanks to all kinds of rights issues. Other than random arthouse theater screenings, UbuWeb is really the only place to watch this film in full.

(Actually, to read a stirring defense of UbuWeb, check out this article by Jack Sargeant.)

What UbuWeb has in its favor especially is that through their actions and policies, they are genuinely interested in supporting and promoting the work of artists. Piracy, does not.

However, in a recent article defending UbuWeb’s status of “Ask for forgiveness later, not permission first,” Kenneth Goldsmith trots out the most egregious and misguided defenses that pirates use: That disseminating work for free brings more fame and fortune to an artist.

The biggest name Goldsmith uses to bolster his theory is artist Ryan Trecartin:

The young, prominent video artist Ryan Trecartin has all his work on Ubu, hi-res copies are distributed by EAI, The Elizabeth Dee Gallery represent his work (and sells his videos there), while showing in museums around the world. Clearly Ryan’s career hasn’t been hurt by this approach.

Particularly that last statement is absolutely unprovable and wrong. There’s no way possible to determine if Trecartin’s career is bigger or smaller because his work is on UbuWeb. Maybe he’s having a great art career, but who’s to say that it couldn’t be even greater if he stopped putting his work on UbuWeb? Anyway, Trecartin’s work isn’t exclusive to UbuWeb. You can also watch it on YouTube and Vimeo. UbuWeb isn’t even a factor in this case.

A better analysis about whether or not putting out work for free is good for artists is this article for The Hill by comic book artist Colleen Doran. (Doran is a sometime advertiser on the Underground Film Journal through Project Wonderful.) While Doran doesn’t give out specific numbers, she clearly did her research to see if the “piracy brings attention and money to artists” argument is true. It isn’t:

I made my comic series, A Distant Soil, available as a free webcomic less than two years ago. Despite assurances that the many sites pirating my work were doing me a favor with their “free advertising” I never saw a single incoming link from them, saw no increase in traffic, and made virtually no money.

Films are different than comic books, too, since there are so many legitimate free options to upload one’s work, e.g. Vimeo and YouTube. However, the downside to that is that any enterprising asswipe can upload the entire two-disc set of Fantoma’s Kenneth Anger short films. Has this brought more attention to the work of Kenneth Anger? Like the Trecartin example, who can prove that? Is YouTube the best viewing experience of Anger’s films? No. Is uploading his films against his wishes disrespectful of him as an artist? Yes. Hell, yes.

So, why does UbuWeb have several films of Anger’s on their site? Scorpio Rising, while it wasn’t readily available for years, it isn’t anymore. Did Anger give them permission, as Goldsmith says they do for in-print films? Goldsmith says he’ll take down videos if an artist asks, but does Anger even know his films are on there?

The internet is a great way for filmmakers, particularly makers of short films, to disseminate their work. The issues surrounding piracy and the releasing one’s work for free as an act of self-promotion is a thorny, troublesome one. Heck, filmmakers uploading movies to Vimeo so I can embed them and make money off of them via surrounding advertisements is kind of weird in and of itself.

But, I think a good place to start is to consider if a particular act is respecting the work of artists or if it’s an act of sheer selfishness.


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