General Notes On Film Piracy

For Ate Ligaya and the mighty pirates of Quiapo cinematheque who educated me about cinema more than any teachers can.


Talks about Film Piracy have often been stumped by mere legalism. Ever since the beginnings of the internet, this has been the case, not just for cinema, but all the other objects that can possibly circulate in the form of zeros and ones. Cyberspace utopian John Perry Barlow correctly analyzed this phenomenon in the early internet piracy as the private enterprises’ attempt to enact the same feudal principles of property to information. Barlow expressed a Platonic cynicism, towards these attempts: what “intellectual property” and copyright laws concern are not the protection of “ideas” themselves, but merely the protection of the appearances or containers of these ideas.1

Much of Barlow’s analyses is true: film piracy does not really corrupt the information, messages and ideas conveyed by the films. The reverse is more true: there are film pirates who will do all it takes to be faithful to the material as possible, in the best possible condition and quality, with minimal to no interventions.

This general effect of Film Piracy on film products highlights the general principles of cinema itself. We can even stress that film piracy actualizes Cinema at its purest: as spectacle, entertainment and/or art. Film Piracy is cinema salvaged from the burdens of commerce, advertising, and other forms of fetishism that marks Hollywood supremacy. Even more so in the advent of cultural globalization brought about by the internet, film piracy has aided the burgeoning of a truly global, World Cinema as we know it.


The Actualization of Cinema

What does it mean to say that film piracy highlights the general principles of cinema itself? Andre Bazin, in his distaste of Marxist analysis, accidentally hinted at the core of cinematic ontology from its social practices: that cinema is an idealistic phenomenon.2 Why is this a “correct” analysis? What we need to understand about cinema is that the film rolls are not cinema itself. Nor are the digital files. These are mere containers necessary to construct Cinema.

Films projected in a dark room can be Cinema, but only if there is someone looking at it. The projected images, fleeting, an action that occupies time rather than a state of being, much like how Barlow identified information.3 This is how the dialectic of the cinematic being is possible: the cinematic spectator, the audience, is the one that endures the projected images. In doing so, this is the only time someone can validate – outside of the attempts at advertising – that such films exist. Without a physical container like in visual art, and without the possibility for a performative repetition like in music, cinema, considered as art, is one that depends upon a spectator to come to be.

As cinema’s history coexisted with the history of capitalist imperialism, the attitude of the global ruling classes towards the audience is always to hint in advance that such and such films exist through advertising. This dependence upon advertising revealed to us the thread Cinema shares with circus attractions and spectacles.

Film piracy cuts through advertising by making a film available to an audience who otherwise wouldn’t have known that such film exists. This sense of discovery brings to the practice of “looking for” films to watch the kind of awe and excitement that the spectacular function of cinema tries to fulfill even before the film is seen.

To bypass advertising is to bypass the burden of movie-watching’s capitalistic tendencies. This also bypasses the movie houses: spaces of commerce that demands both spare time and money you and I may not have for a long time. The ease of gathering of these films makes an almost deregulated library that also bypasses existing state censorship.

These acts of bypassing do not exist without contradictions. Film piracy is not by itself a counter-hegemonic practice. The phenomenon of Film Piracy is also brought out by the same imperialist conditions that made the global monopoly of Hollywood happen. Reflected on more piracy practices is still having the same frequency of more mainstream Hollywood products to be consumed. We can even say that the most popular of Hollywood titles owes their popularity to Piracy.

Contrary to what legalists claim, Piracy accommodates the market in the most peculiar way. But as a superstructural activity, the after effect of film piracy still merely reflects what is already the dominant condition. Hollywood still reign, even stronger now than before.

But what does Hollywood supremacy prove, especially in the case of Piracy? Hollywood’s continuing dominance, despite being the most pirated of all national cinemas, proves that piracy isn’t in any way an act of theft. The digital file circulated over the internet synthesizes Bazin idealism with Barlow’s digital utopianism:

all the goods of the Information Age–all of the expressions once contained in books or film strips or records or newsletters–will exist either as pure thought or something very much like thought: voltage conditions darting around the Net at the speed of light, in conditions which one might behold in effect, as glowing pixels or transmitted sounds, but never touch or claim to “own” in the old sense of the word.4

Film pirates, those who distribute films over the internet, never claim ownership over the material. The mere fact that most film pirates try to keep the same material in-tact, in the best condition possible, gives the sense of respect they have to the material they are trying to circulate. In as much as Cinema is idealist, and so is Film Piracy: file sharing happens due to the enthusiasm that only takes place when someone wants to share an experience to a lot of people. Film piracy concretizes what is needed by the advocates of bourgeois film literacy to succeed but are too afraid of the intellectual property legalese to suggest.


World Cinema as film piracy’s legacy

Outside of the piracy of popular Hollywood cinema, lies the niche but productive aspect of film piracy culture that paved the way to what we know right now as world cinema.

The claim for a “world cinema” initially started in the bourgeois spaces of International Film Festivals that boasts world premieres of films from all around the world for the European and Hollywood industry spectators. For the most part of global film history, international film festivals set the direction of what is to be considered as part of “world cinema.” The audiences of these international film festivals involve industry heads, film distributors, theater owners, film critics, advertisers, funders, and more that have nothing to do with film audiences. They set the course on what potential film audiences should and can see: film critics present at film festivals write first impressions on films and as these garner interest and responses, distributors select from world premieres potential money makers.

Much of what gets world distribution, films that land to us as “legally” available, has very little to do with audience interest. World distribution of “world cinema” also has very limited scope, as it still competes with Hollywood imperialism. Instead of struggling against Hollywood, contemporary “world cinema” from the film festivals gives up and settles to confine themselves within the limited niche the “arthouse” and “foreign language” room can give them.

Film piracy is still trapped in this. Piracy of “world cinema” of course, initially starts with festival winners and those which have piqued film critics’ interests. Those which have been written about as “significant.” What made film piracy possible is the accessibility of what is deemed as “significant” work of “world cinema” and potentially get re-scrutinized in the eyes of a truly global film audience. This was what happened on two strands in contemporary Philippine film history: the surge of chinese manufactured “Class-A” DVDs in what was considered as mecca of cinephilia, Quiapo, and the heightened accessibility of world cinema files on both public and private torrent trackers, courtesy of uploaders from Karagarga, Secret Cinema, Pass the Popcorn, and more. 

But a truly “global” cinema needs to get over the problem of language to enact its full accessibility. Film piracy community has bred a culture of translation that has been unprecedented prior to this era. Suddenly, even films that never enjoyed wide and global distribution, suddenly become accessible thanks to the generosity of translators online. Films that otherwise may have been forgotten have undergone reconsideration due to it being available both in content and in translation.

Looking at a really democratic perspective, the Hollywood sublation of world cinema, peaked in its recognition of the South Korean Film, Parasite in 2020’s awards season was never really possible without the global film culture that has backed the appreciation of the 2000s waves of contemporary Asian and European cinema, to which film director Bong Joon-ho is included. And this global film culture was never really possible without the wider net of global film piracy. Sure, attempts at distribution of films all over the world are done by media companies who distribute DVDs, etc, but these attempts are commonly halted by distribution rights arrangements and Region Locks which bars a film from being available to everybody in the world.


The Politics of Film Piracy and World Cinema

With entertainment as its general function, the Politics of Cinema is the politics of having fun. Of course, fun appears differently depending on one’s preference, and so is watching a film. Film piracy is enables the possibility for a true fun in film watching to happen. Fun which is unburdened by the concerns of consumerism and the alienation that language barriers give us. It is in these acts of accessing films in an unauthorized manner that we begin to revalidate films as art again and our participation in cinema as both serious and fun activity. It’s actually harmless and actually benefiting Cinema as a whole. Global film studios and film producers threatening to jail people gives us a hint on what capitalist imperialism actually wants when they want us to consume: they never really want us to be happy, they even use film workers as a shield to make this happen, they just want our money.


[1] John Perry Barlow, “Selling Wine without Bottles: The Economy of Mind on the Global Net” from High Noon on the Electronic Frontier: Conceptual Issues in Cyberspace. Ed. Peter Ludlow. Cambridge & London: The MIT Press, 1996. 10. Also accessible through

[2] Andre Bazin, “The Myth of Total Cinema” from What is Cinema? Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 17.

[3] Barlow, “Selling Wine without Bottles”, 19.

[4] Barlow, “Selling Wine without Bottles”, 11-12.

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