Even for a group of people who perhaps deservedly feel compelled to champion their continued relevance, if not importance, there are few things that film critics and entertainment journalists like to talk about more than themselves. But in the last few weeks there's been a preponderance of goings-on in internet journalism and film criticism that is troubling at a deeper, and considerably more important level: it's not just that people are stealing more than ever, it's that those people are trying to justify it.
Although plagiarism is hardly a new problem for journalists, much less those who write primarily for the internet, recent events have highlighted both the internet's vast reservoir of content people can steal from, and its remarkable penchant for self-policing.
A few weeks ago, an English "critic" named Tom Perkins who records video reviews was caught repeating the verbatim text of an Iron Man 2 review which was written by Joblo critic Jimmy O. Although he initially denied the claims, evidence produced by a pile-on of other writers got his outlet to dump him and his content, and eventually forced him to confess his transgressions, if only in the name of preserving a semblance of a career.
In the interim, movie producer Nicolas Chartier, the doofus whose email campaign for The Hurt Locker to win Best Picture led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to revoke his invitation to attend the awards ceremony, received and responded to a letter from a moviegoer who complained about Chartier's claim he would sue anyone who pirated his films. While his response was perhaps excessively vitriolic, his point about illegal downloading was subsequently lost in the din of outrage that he would dare respond so strongly to someone contacting a producer to tell them they're wrong for wanting to make money off of the movies they make.
Simultaneously, one of our colleagues over at Chud, Devin Faraci, used his Formspring account – and later, Chud.com itself – to respond to a series of questions about piracy on the internet, where his condemnation of illegal downloading was met with rancorous disagreement, if not outrage. Meanwhile, a writer named Alex Petrosian at the Mustang Daily, the newspaper of California Polytechnic State University, confessed that he plagiarized or otherwise stole content from a number of reviews written by Roger Ebert in order to write his own. Further, he issued an apology to the readers of the Mustang Daily, a paper whose staff previously acknowledged that one of their political cartoonists copied ideas and content from an Icelandic artist.
The fact that there are so many immediate examples of journalistic malfeasance, much less internet piracy, is somehow not the most troubling aspect of all of these incidents. What's truly disturbing is the extent to which these critics, journalists, readers and commenters went to justify and explain their actions. Perkins' "apology" was first, and it hinted at the depths of his fellow internet denizens' ability to deflect blame or responsibility: "my main reason for starting to plagiarise [sic] a while ago was mainly because YouTube has become so easily corruptible these days I kind of wanted to see how corruptible it can be," he wrote. "Which of course got way out of hand and I forgot that I was taking advantage of your hard work."
The young activist who took it upon himself to contact Nicolas Chartier to register his disapproval further expanded upon Perkins' self-delusion and sense of entitlement: "The majority of the people you are suing were not seeking to make money from their downloads, and will be financially devastated by a lawsuit or settlement," he argued. "While it is completely understandable that Voltage Pictures wishes to defend its intellectual property, this is an inhumane way of doing so. ...I do not wish for the money I spend on entertainment to be used against otherwise good people."
Petrosian's supposed apology, however, was a crowning achievement in acknowledging wrongdoing without taking blame, starting with the headline of the article, which read "Columnist expresses regret for negligent transgressions." In the body of his missive, Petrosian explained that he reads "dozens" of reviews before writing his own, but rather than simply confessing he borrowed from Ebert's reviews, he instead conceded that "it has been said that certain ideas that I have conveyed in my articles are way too similar to statements Ebert has made." Afterward, he goes on to "commend" the people who discovered his ongoing plagiarism and reassure the readers that he's not "angry or bitter" that they outed him. (Thank God for that.)
At the risk of sounding like the old crank that I'm quickly becoming, I am more and more convinced each day that the internet itself has produced this culture where there are no consequences to behavior, and as a result, no one takes responsibility for themselves any more. And quite frankly, I almost understand. When someone can log in under a pseudonym - or even their own name, for that matter - to leave a hateful comment about an article written about a person they will never see, there's absolutely no reason for them to be more constructive, thoughtful, or respectful. It's this process of "interaction" which has produced a generation of internet users who not only carelessly criticize different opinions or disrespect others, but who now feel justified that what they do is okay, no matter what it is or who it eventually hurts.
The reason I referred to Faraci's Formspring discussion of piracy and Chartier's harangue about illegal downloading in the context of these folks who plagiarize reviews is because it's all theft. There are no shades of gray, no mitigating circumstances. It's theft, plain and simple. No explanation or justification changes the fact that a person is stealing if they download a song or a movie that is meant to be sold. And as a person who was brought up by two parents who instilled in me a sense of right and wrong, and perhaps more importantly, a sense of personal responsibility, I am shocked to discover not that people steal songs or movies or reviews, but that they won't take responsibility for their actions.
During a number of exchanges in the comments sections of recent articles about these specific infractions and piracy in general, some have made the argument that the system of monetization of music and movies is broken and must be fixed or replaced before punishing people who steal content. All of this may be true. But it doesn't change the fact that you are stealing if you are taking material that is meant to be sold, or otherwise has monetary value. (In terms of reviews, this means stealing content from a web site whose revenue depends on advertising or traffic, both of which diminish when that content shows up elsewhere on the web.) I absolutely think that the music industry has shot itself in the foot attempting to monetize music using a physical media model, but that doesn't mean I am justified in taking mp3s just because record labels haven't figured out a way to be financially successful online.
Regardless, the vast majority of people who are downloading content are not staging a rebellion against outdated sales methods or making a greater political statement, unless that statement is "I am too lazy/ irresponsible to pay for the content that I want." There is no argument to make for a real need for this material, no matter how big a fan of something you are, and nothing you can download – at least not on Bittorrent or Napster (or at least its original incarnation) – is necessary for life. If you don't want to pay the market value for a legal download or a CD or DVD, then don't buy it.
Because effectively what a person is doing when they download something illegally is injure or sometimes eliminate the possibility that more of that same material can be made again. The Hurt Locker, Chartier's film, was made for some $15 million or so, and performed poorly at the box office. At the same time, it won Best Picture, but the fact that many of the people who saw it downloaded it illegally to "see what the fuss was about," and moreover, that it made little money for its distributor, virtually ensures that future producers and studios won't commit money to a film that won't recuperate its costs or prove successful, no matter how many awards it wins.
Moreover, it disrespects the artists and creators of the content. Call it an emotional plea if you want, but for every one of those songs that was downloaded illegally, someone wrote and recorded and produced and edited it, and if that effort is not remunerated then those people literally cannot make more of them. Suffice it to say that this applies more directly to independent filmmaking and artists who record and release music themselves, but piracy has literally engineered the downfall of music distribution and the cycle of creative replenishment that has sustained new artists and new music for decades.
Of course, there are real arguments to be made that the fines and lawsuits lobbied against people who download content illegally are excessive. Perhaps they are too tough or ask for too much money. But there's an easy solution if you don't want to face those kinds of fines for filling out your music or movie collection – don't steal content. But if you are going to do it anyway, then at least take responsibility for your actions and own up to the fact that yes, you are stealing.
Ultimately, it all comes down to taking responsibility for oneself, which means paying for all of the entertainment content you want to watch or listen to, respecting the efforts of artists who try to make a living producing that content, or at the absolute least, owning up to the fact that you're taking something that doesn't belong to you. Even though it's a file, it's ones and zeroes in cyberspace, or it's not something physical, it's still a product, just like the CD players and iPods you smartly choose not to slip under your jacket at Best Buy and try to walk out with.
Don't pretend that you're engaging in class warfare by ripping off a young artist whose self-released album is starting to get some radio play. Don't try to justify downloading an independent horror movie (or even a studio one) by saying that "the system" sets unfair prices for legal purchases. And don't ascribe repeated theft of news or reviews to some mysterious sociological experiment where you're trying to see how long it takes for the rest of the internet to catch you plagiarizing. Be a responsible person, even if you're not an adult, acknowledge your behavior, and accept the repercussions of it. Because as has already happened with illegal downloaders and plagiarists, eventually someone will find out what you're doing, and make you pay for your choices. The question is, do you want to determine the cost of stealing content, or would you rather let them do it?