Condemned Property: Video Piracy as a Form of Nationalist Resistance

Before I proceed, I would like to state what an honor it has been for me to be invited to this event. As you can tell from my family name, Pampanga is the home province of my father’s side of the family. But because of the exigencies of surviving in the ever-expanding metropolis of Manila, which has been starting to claim portions of the neighboring province, Bulacan, for some time now, we stopped visiting our hometown of Magalang while I was still a child. This is therefore my first formal event in Pampanga since I became a professional scholar. As a consequence, the lecture I will be delivering will not be anything like the paper I submitted to the conference – which is probably also a positive thing, considering the proofreading errors I discovered when I went over it again. I would also like to plead for your indulgence in providing an alternate subtitle for my lecture, which is: “A Subjective Odyssey.” Not because I was or will be a video pirate, nor did I go or will go after one, but because the issue of video piracy has left virtually few aspects of our Third-World everyday existence untouched. The aim therefore of this lecture will be to provide the genealogy, or origin, of the paper I submitted. In effect, I will be recounting the narrative of how I came to be researching the recent and now nearly finished phenomenon of video piracy in our country.

11011When our heads of state dialog with bigwigs from our former colonizing center, the United States, regarding the matter they euphemistically term “intellectual property rights,” one would think that the situation has attained the same level of urgency as other issues such as terrorism, poverty, global warming, environmental devastation, new deadly diseases, and internet pornography. What’s subjective about this account was my personal and professional involvement in video presentation, as a teacher, researcher, and former student of film at the University of the Philippines Film Institute, which continued even after I’d left the institution. While completing my M.A. and Ph.D. in Cinema Studies during the 1990s in the US, I and my Filipino colleagues were attuned to an escalating scenario of video piracy in our home country in what was then the compact disc digital video or VCD format. Up to that point it appeared as if we overseas Pinoys would remain permanently out of sync in relation to our counterparts on the other side of the planet. Where the standard videocassette format in the US was VHS, in the Philippines it was Betamax; and where the video disc format we had was laser disc, back home it was VCD.

11011Even this early it was painfully evident that Filipinos would be doomed to the low-end technological option, which provided affordability at the expense of quality. The only consolation – a significant one, as far as we were concerned – was that people would still resort to theatrical film screenings. Before Betamax gave way to VHS and VCD to DVD, the Philippines still enjoyed double-digit annual film production. The numbers were less than half of the mid-two hundred peak realized by the local industry during the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, but even then, I was still able to argue to my dissertation adviser that the output per capita was higher than that of India, which was and continues to be the world record-holder in absolute terms.

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11011It made sense for people to still troop to movie-houses even when current releases could appear on videocassette or VCD. Audiovisual resolution in these formats was too miserable to be pleasurable; moreover, and here we’re treading on speculation, the continuing saga of political and economic upheavals visited by globalizing trends on our fragile system made it imperative for the population to continue seeking solace in social gatherings, of which film screenings, at their half-dollar admission price then, would still prove irresistible as an attraction.

11011It would be relevant to mention at this point that the world’s successful prosecution of copyright violation using file-sharing software occurred only as recently as 2005, in Hong Kong (“Man Jailed in 1st Copyright Violation Case”). Not surprisingly, the most extensive and useful book-length study of video piracy, Laikwan Pang’s Cultural Control and Globalization in Asia, provides an extensive analysis of VCDs, which served as the format for the supposedly rampant piracy of Hollywood film products in Hong Kong. In a later volume, Creativity and Its Discontents, Pang built on the observation that in the contemporary era, a new system, called the creative economy, centered on the production of original creative material, has effectively supplanted the knowledge economy (Creativity and Its Discontents Introduction). Her approach is premised on Roland V. Bettig’s description of the digital-era dilemma of filmed entertainment: that the cost of reproducing creative content is virtually negligible compared to the cost of producing it (Bettig 93).

11011In the late ’nineties my roommates and I celebrated the First-World film distributors’ decision to adopt and promote the DVD format. At the same time, we wondered how such a relatively expensive system would fare in the Philippines. As it turned out, the DVD pricing scheme in the US was surprisingly competitive and, more important, rationalized enough to challenge early attempts at piracy. In concrete terms, if (and this is a big if, okay) I intended to pirate a new DVD release in the US for myself, the cost I would incur in renting a copy, buying a blank disc, reproducing the cover art and accompanying booklet, and setting up my system to rip and burn the contents would not be that far from the cost of simply walking into a store and buying a legitimate copy. What tips the balance in favor of doing the legally preferred option is a combination of the calculable advantages of enjoying a warranty on the product, as well as the incalculable delights of shopping.

11011Flash-forward to the turn-of-the-millennium, when the installation of a Republican President and the collapse of the Twin Towers indicated to me that I needed to get out of that place, that country, and back to my duties in the backwaters of Asia. As it turned out, the process of dissertation-writing had kept me from catching up on recent developments outside of what was happening to the family of HBO’s Tony Soprano. Upon my return to Manila, my faculty colleagues and students alerted me to the presence of a thriving market in pirated DVDs in Quiapo, Manila’s downscale commercial district, site of occasional populist demonstrations and acts of criminality both political and personal. Its best-known landmark is the sixteenth-century Catholic Church that enshrines the Black Nazarene, one of a few major Filipino icons that make a case for the Africanness of the historical Christ. The Black Nazarene inspires hysterical devotion among lower-class religious males, particularly during its annual procession in January, because of its reputedly miraculous properties, including the ability to completely cleanse one of her or his sins.

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11011Quiapo is known for other historical events, such as the long-controversial bombing of the opposition’s miting de avance at Plaza Miranda in 1971, attributed by the right-wing pre-martial law government of Ferdinand Marcos to the Communist Party of the Philippines and blamed by the Communists on the Marcos government. There are also the Quiapo-set films of the top action stars in Philippine movie history: Joseph Estrada starring in Geron Busabos: Ang Batang Quiapo, and Fernando Poe Jr. countering much later with his own Batang Quiapo. But one marvel that can still be empirically witnessed today is the fact that the pirated DVD stalls lie just outside the sphere of Catholicity, in the Muslim ghetto on the other side of Quezon Boulevard, the main vehicular and pedestrian artery.

11011For over a year I was unaware of the exact whereabouts of this paradise-within-an-inferno. And meanwhile – big melodramatic moment coming up – my father was rapidly deteriorating from a terminal illness, so I decided to get him a DVD player where I could screen for him some of the films I had brought over from the US. I decided to get him one of his favorites the way I would do it in the US – that is, legitimately. So I looked up one of the biggest mid-priced mall chains in the country, entered its video shop, and bought Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for the equivalent of thirty-six US dollars. Never mind that it was selling for under fifteen dollars at – I figured there were multiple costs involved in importing the product – and well, what do I know, really. Besides, it made my father happy, but at that rate, I figured I’d never be able to get him the classical Hollywood titles he was asking for.

11011After he died, I finally managed to find the exact whereabouts of the flea-market style “illegitimate” DVDs peddled in Quiapo. You guessed right if you thought the first title I looked up was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There it was, selling, just like everything else, at the flat rate of about one US dollar. And that was just the start of my long rude awakening to the reality of video distribution outside the First World. For starters, the vendors had all the popular mainstream titles offered by the so-called legitimate outlets – and more, much more, several times over in fact. Allow me to flash a description of the possible categories of products posted online by an even more enthusiastic consumer.

11011To provide ourselves with a handle into the availability of products in this mecca (pardon the pun), I and a few of my faculty colleagues listed the titles we thought would fit the collection of your garden-variety film enthusiast. Every other week or so, we would tally our findings and, unfortunately for the completists among us, eliminate those titles we felt would be available in most “average” households anyway. Thus, no recent Oscar winners, Tom Hanks- and/or Meg Ryan-starrers, martial-arts movies produced in countries that never gave rise to martial arts, humanist dramas unless spoken in a language other than English, TV shows that all carbon-based life forms would have seen anyway … you get the drift.

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11011The last time I looked up our list, we had over seven hundred “preferred” titles, still an impressive number, dwarfing the individual wish lists we had compiled using “legit” online sources.

11011These discoveries were not ours alone to claim. Several major personalities from media and academe, some of them foreign-based, could be seen scouring the stalls for possible additions to their collections. When a local television program sent out feelers for any of them to come forward, one of those who responded was Joey Reyes, the person who at that time was arguably the most prominent prestige filmmaker in the country. He said, in Tagalog, “I need them for my own growth as a director. Anyway, it’s the big foreign films that are killing the local movie industry. I’m just helping our people slay these giants by buying their films from video pirates” (Diones, n.p.).

11011Moreover, and this is where my subjectivity intersects with his, “The system of piracy can be considered a ‘great equalizer’ because everyone is equal when it comes to purchasing power – even the poor can afford to buy the copies” (Diones, n.p.). Reyes’s assertion jibes with our informal observations, done roughly on a weekly basis over the course of the past three years. What might have sounded incredible anytime during the past millennium – say, a lower-class consumer inquiring about widescreen, subtitling, and extra features – is now commonplace enough to appear as images in local pop culture. As a corollary, the vendors themselves have done their own upgrading. Some of the stalls are now housed in air-conditioned buildings, and the personnel are up to the challenge of helping buyers sort through the wide variety of products on display. Ronnie (not his real name), a physically disabled man who operates the biggest stall in one of the buildings, said that he had taken a film course [not in our university, or I would have recognized him] just to be able to familiarize himself with the more exotic or antique samples available (David, interview).

11011The vendors were more than aware of the historical and political implications of their situation. They had a system of alerts when raids have been scheduled by the police force. Because of their minority status, they were unafraid to stand their ground, meeting force with force when necessary. In fact, the revised guidelines controlling optical media in the country stipulate additional penalties for “violators who employ armed resistance against agents of the [Optical Media Board]” (Republic Act 9239, 4.19.b3), a reference to the exchange of gunfire reported three years ago between the vendors and the raiding team of the now-defunct Videogram Regulatory Board.

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11011The Philippine Muslim population suffers from the many contradictions brought about by postcolonial development, or the lack of it. The people, currently constituting less than seven percent of the seventy-two-million total population (Joshua Project), are credited by nationalist historians as consistent resisters of foreign colonizers, so much so that the English word “amuck” was taken directly from the Malay original “amok” and had its meaning of righteous resistance distorted, to refer instead to “murderous frenzy” (“Amuck” entry, n.p.). Filipino Muslims have also suffered some of the worst depredations of the Christian majority, including massacres, militarization, land-grabbing, and religion-based vigilantism (see Vitug and Gloria) – not to mention the unconscionable cultural stereotyping that invariably accompanies such dehumanizing treatment.

11011In initiating, controlling, and most important, succeeding in the selling and possibly in the local production of pirated DVDs, Filipino Muslims have forged for themselves a historical intervention unique in at least two significant ways, to wit:

  • Unable to afford the interconnectivity facilitated by the World Wide Web, they have instead opted to be familiar with what has been described by Aaron Barlow in The DVD Revolution as a similar access to information via the interactive features of the new format. This of course applies not just to Filipino Muslims, but to the impoverished majority as well.
  • Aware of the current trends toward scapegoating and guilt-by-association through the links of some members of their community with the al-Qaida network, they have responded with what is recognizably an entrepreneurial innovation, albeit with severe consequences for American corporations yet with profoundly gratifying benefits for the rest of the Filipino nation. During my term as founding Director of the University of the Philippines Film Institute, I openly enjoined faculty and students to defer from calling the practice “DVD piracy”; I proposed instead the term “anti-imperialist video-dubbing service,” to call attention to the positive effects of the exercise.

Curiously, such a liminal position used to be associated with another racialized local group, the Chinese-Filipinos. Suspected, accused, sometimes penalized, and at least at one point executed for an array of socioeconomic transgressions ranging from gun-running, drug-dealing, to pornography, the Chinese-Filipino community had also had to suffer a number of flagrant and rampant human-rights violations, their economic potential circumscribed by retail-trade limits, and attacks on their presence being undertaken even by left-identified authors as recently as the nineteen-sixties. Their politicization as a community arrived after they had achieved economic clout (Hau 15-62) – a trend which appears to be occurring in reverse in the case of Filipino Muslims. In relation to the issue under study, the last wave of active film production in the Philippines, from the late ’seventies to the ’nineties, was also dominated by Chinese-Filipino producers, to the point where the martial-law government felt compelled to set up its own production arm and covertly supported the founding of a Filipino-owned studio to promote wholesome icons, reactionary narratives, and Hollywood-style aesthetics (David, Wages of Cinema 70-71).

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11011In terms of relations with the regional body-politic, we can take a cue from Michel Foucault’s brief foray into racial politics, originally delivered as a series of lectures at the Collége de France. In looking at European history during the Middle Ages, he noted that what eventually became racist discourse was originally a discourse of race war, which had the useful function of operating as a counterhistory to the then-standard justification and reinforcement of the power of sovereigns (51-84). Here we note – and it goes without saying, with a lot of caution – that three groups within the same nation-state interact diachronically: the Filipinos, who identify with the West, which in this case embraces both Washington and the Vatican; the Chinese, who were regarded as outsiders because of their association with East Asian culture; and the Muslims, whose allegiance extends to the Middle East by way of the larger archipelago comprising Indonesia and Malaysia, the two major Islamic republics of Southeast Asia. From the last reformulation, we can see that the Philippines, from one possible perspective, is not just an unacknowledged component in the term “Indo-Malayan archipelago,” it is also the outsider to Islam, with Christianized Filipinos constituting the minority in the region.

11011Thus a basis for belligerence emerges: just as the West-identified Christianized Filipinos are really Westerners manqué, not white-skinned enough, not to mention wealthy enough, even in relation to East Asians, neither are they adherents of the predominant religion within the immediate region. The connection with Indonesia and Malaysia becomes more direct when we look up the alleged sources of pirated discs and find that it is these two countries that are pinpointed by vendors and administrative officials alike (Inquirer News Service, Arab News). Although as of about a year ago, the Optical Media Board claimed to have closed down DVD-burning equipment involved in “pirate” operations (Valera, n.p.), the insistence by everyone on identifying the Philippines’ neighboring countries as the primary source of illegal products resonates with the larger issue of global terrorism. It were as if our Islamic neighbors first furnished our links to the current millennium’s historical villains, and now this too.

11011But on a level playing field, one in which the voices of the racialized others can speak out, one difference stands out prominently enough to suggest a rupture. The nature of the Muslims’ transgression this time is economic. It lays bare the hypocrisy of American distributors in their desire to police the market so that it would have no choice but pay through the nose for their overpriced products. Such global-scale ironies generate numerous local ones, and I’d venture one fond example: the Filipino legislator who first argued that the US distributors’ best way to combat piracy is by reducing their prices was none other than the daughter of Ferdinand E. Marcos, the dictator installed and supported by a series of American Presidents and businesses until he proved too unpopular to be profitable for them (Villafania, “RP Lashed for Rampant Piracy,” n.p.).

11011One vital process in the study that I still have to fully complete is a content analysis of the so-called Special 301 Reports of the International Intellectual Property Alliance. The IIPA is a US private-sector coalition (IIPA, “Milestones of the International Intellectual Property Alliance” 5). Its formation coincided with the growing concern of copyright-based industries over the emergence of technological advancements that enable consumers to appropriate, process, and reproduce pristine content that had formerly been accessible only through direct purchases from producers and their authorized distributors. As a so-far effective strategy for pursuing its objective of stringent policing of copyright-related acts, the IIPA held entire nations responsible for copyright violations within their territories, and enforced its will through the US Trade Representative. In effect, a country’s economic performance can be affected by the presence of so-called pirates, and anti-piracy measures become part of the preconditions for unimpeded trade relations with the US.

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11011The IIPA’s Special 301 Reports are annual evaluations of the state of various countries’ degrees of violation of the IP laws of the US. They openly provide no further justification for their existence other than that the US is determined to defend the IP interests of American companies and that it is willing to leverage its trading clout as a means of enforcing its policies. What makes the reports frustrating to evaluate is that they shift in tone and emphasis, not just from one country to another but also from one year to the next for the same country. They start in 1989 comprising eight mimeographed pages and continue that way for all of the 1990s. Then suddenly, during the year of the 9-11 attacks, they become book-length. The 2001 entry is in fact the shortest, at just under 630 pages, with the report on the Philippines running for ten pages – longer than the first complete report.

11011The reports’ recommendations range across a number of unstable categories, some of which get adjusted and even readjusted in later reports. From mildest to worst, these would be: Pending, presumably meaning that the IIPA is awaiting further reports or confirmations from IP companies or associations; Monitoring, which appears to indicate that the IIPA wishes to determine for itself whatever charges are being raised against a country under suspicion; Watch List, which is what most countries fall under, wherein a country has been notified via the report that it is in violation and must endeavor to prove good behavior; Priority Watch List, which applies to countries that are in serious IP rights violations requiring more intensive attention; and finally, Priority Foreign Country, which indicates that a country lacks adequate and effective protection of IP rights or fair and equitable market access to US citizens who rely on IP rights protection. Ukraine is the only country that merited this final designation during the current millennium. Other countries such as Brazil, Paraguay, China, India, Thailand, and Taiwan were declared PFCs at some time or other during the 1990s.

11011The Philippines only reached Priority Watch List status from Watch List and back. But the Special 301 Reports would be disturbing to any student of national security and surveillance. The reports mention specific shops in various areas – along Recto Avenue, for example, or even the recently burned Shopping Center at the Diliman campus of the University of the Philippines. At some point the reports begin dropping the names of Filipino filmmakers who might be deprived of royalties, despite the fact that the so-called pirates of Quiapo avoid selling local titles. Even more awkwardly, the list of names includes artists who had long died, such as Gerardo de Leon, Ishmael Bernal, Eddie Romero, Nick Joaquin, Edith Tiempo, Antonio Molina, Jose Maceda, and Ernani Cuenco.

11011One interesting trend, however, concerns the call to violence. The Special 301 Reports focused on the Philippines tended to observe an escalating call for more raids, speedier court cases, and further legislation. True to colonialist strategy, they recommended the formation of agencies to oversee only specific problem areas and raised the specter of terrorism by echoing the late Jack Valenti’s unfounded claim that the pirates were assisting Islamic-extremist groups. Yet during the late 2000s, this type of agitational use of language suddenly died down. We may say that this reflected the triumph of the previous years’ excesses, but we can also look toward reports where shop owners began resisting raiding parties by using firearm weapons.

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11011Another development would also have occurred on the home front, from the perspective of the US. The media began criticizing the scare tactics being deployed by IP rights lawyers, mandating jail terms and million-dollar fines even for minors who downloaded files even without the intent of sharing those files with others. Events came to a head when Aaron Swartz, who helped develop RSS feed and Creative Commons and cofounded Reddit, was arrested by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for allegedly using its guest account in order to download articles from the JSTOR digital library. When his plea bargain was rejected, he committed suicide and caused a backlash against IP rights prosecutions. That same year, 2013, Edward Snowden fled the US in order to leak information classified by the National Security Agency. As a result of these high-profile cases, attention turned to a non-American, Alexandra Elbakyan from Kazakhstan, whose website Sci-Hub [spell] performed the tremendous service to impoverished scholars of downloading articles from paywalled journals.

11011At this point, we find ourselves on the verge of an unprecedented opportunity in information science. Text and image files from most available periods of history are being uploaded online, at a rate that grows faster than anyone can track. Several new fields such as Digital Humanities are premised on what has been termed big-data analysis. The insistence on IP prosecution as well as unlimited copyright is being regarded as one of the final obstructions to this inevitable advance in our instant access to knowledge. So if we were to raise one final question, it may as well be: who exactly has been condemned?

Works Cited

“Amuck.” Word entry. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Accessed Feb. 22, 2005.

Barlow, Aaron. The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, and Technology. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004.

Bettig, Roland V. Copyrighting Culture: The Political Economy of Intellectual Property. Westview Press, 1996.

David, Joel. Interview with “Ronnie.” Quiapo, Manila. Jan. 29, 2005.

———. Wages of Cinema: Film in Philippine Perspective. Quezon City: Univ. of the Philippines Press, 1998.

De la Cruz, Julius. “Quiapo Underground.” Experiment Orange. Website publication. Accessed Feb. 21, 2005.

Diones, Allan. “‘Pirated’ Watches, Pinagkaguluhan ng mga Artista” [Actors Go Crazy Over “Pirated” Watches]. Abante Tonite. Website publication. Accessed Feb. 22, 2005.

Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collége de France, 1975-1976. Eds. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 1997.

Hau, Caroline S. On the Subject of the Nation: Filipino Writings from the Margins, 1981 to 2004. Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Univ. Press, 2004.

Inquirer News Service, Arab News. “Optical Media Board Head Denies Anti-Muslim Bias.” Arab News. Website publication. Accessed Feb. 20, 2005.

International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA). Special 301 Report on Copyright Protection and Enforcement. Annual. The Philippine sections per year are as follows: 2001, pp. 175-84; 2002, pp. 197-214; 2003, pp. 213-28; 2004, pp. 165-76; 2005, pp. 215-34; 2006, pp. 127-40; 2007, pp. 371-91; 2008, pp. 295-311; 2009, pp. 110-21; 2010, pp. 108-20; 2011, pp. 76-86; 2012, pp. 222-34; 2013, pp. 327-38; 2014, pp. 199-202.

———. “Milestones of the International Intellectual Property Alliance: Twenty Years of Global Copyright Reform (1984-2004).” Press release, October 2004.

Joshua Project: People Cluster Listings. Entries for “Filipino, Central” and “Filipino, Muslim.” Accessed Feb. 22, 2005.

“Man Jailed in 1st Copyright Violation Case.” BizReport, 7 Nov. 2005, Accessed 18 April 2006.

Pang, Laikwan. Creativity and Its Discontents: China’s Creative Industries and Intellectual Property Rights Offenses. Duke UP, 2012.

———. Cultural Control and Globalization in Asia: Copyright, Piracy, and Cinema. Kindle ed., Routledge, 2006.

Republic Act 9239. “An Act Regulating Optical Media, Reorganizing for this Purpose the Videogram Regulatory Board, Providing Penalties Therefor, and for Other Purposes.” Congress of the Philippines. Passed Jan. 13, 2004 and approved Feb. 10, 2004.

US Embassy Manila Public Affairs Section. “Piracy Has Become a Serious Problem in the Philippines.” Official website. Accessed Feb. 20, 2005.

Valera, Nini. “Edu Offers $5,000 Reward for Information on Pirates.” Website Publication. Accessed Feb. 20, 2005.

———. “RP Lashed for Rampant Piracy.” Metropolitan Computer Times. Website publication. Accessed Feb. 20, 2005.

Vitug, Marites Dañguilan and Glenda M. Gloria. Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao. Quezon City: Ateneo Center for Social Policy and Social Affairs, 2000.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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