I live in a country where anything goes. Pretty much anything. And as much as we Lebanese people have made it a habit to complain about the ever-increasing corruption infesting our country, we also can’t deny that we capitalise on its benefits. Let’s be honest here, as much as we claim to hate the absence of any system, having no system has become a system of itself and we’ve made it our own Lebanese system.
Among many of the benefits we get to enjoy, piracy is the one I will be addressing today.
The first time I was exposed to piracy was probably 13 years ago when Napster was shut down. I remember it really bugged me because I couldn’t download any more free music and had to look for other alternatives. Before that I didn’t even know what piracy meant and to be honest I didn’t know there was anything called copyrights. When I got my first computer at the age of 12 and my friends got me computer games, I didn’t even know there was a thing called the “original copy” and another called the “cracked version”. I thought all games were like the ones I had and it wasn’t until a couple of years down the line that I saw my first original game on display in a computer store for some $80 and I remember thinking to myself: “I can’t believe how expensive this shop is, I can get this game for $2!!”. It’s downright laughable I know, but I’m telling you that’s how much I had no clue about piracy. To show you even more, when I first found out around the age of 20 that my copy of Windows was a counterfeit, I got pissed off thinking I got robbed by the computer guy. Little did I know that every copy of Windows I had ever owned for the past 8 years was a counterfeit and if I had to own the original copy it would’ve cost me about $300. Not only that, but the whole country was running on counterfeit versions of Windows.
It had never occurred to me before that it was wrong and all this time I thought this was how the system worked. In hindsight I can’t believe I never saw it, but again when you grow up to a certain system from a young age, you don’t often stop to ask if it’s right or wrong, you just think this is how things work. And I bet you if you ask any teenager now why he needs to jailbreak his Xbox, he would tell you right away so that he wouldn’t have to pay for the games, without even stopping to think whether it’s right or wrong.
It wasn’t until I made my first $200 while I was still in university out of a music composition project, that my conscience was stricken with the bitter realisation that I had just robbed the company that made the software I was using to compose music. It hit me like a lightning bolt and I couldn’t take the thought out of my head if I tried. I had just made money using a software I didn’t pay for and the company whose software I had just benefited from didn’t get anything in return. This was the beginning of a long series of wrestling matches with the truth that what I was doing was wrong.
I started justifying myself and why I was doing what I was doing. At first I hid behind the fact that I couldn’t afford the original software. But I knew stealing was wrong, so I couldn’t make peace with the excuse that I could pirate the software because I was poor — it was still stealing. Then I tried numbing my conscience with the fact that the whole country operated like that and authorities seldom pursued anyone for piracy or breaking copyrights and even if they did, it was only temporary until a bribe came into the story. Heck, people here don’t even know what a synchronisation license means and I can guarantee you that the soundtracks of Gladiator and Requiem For A Dream have been used maybe more than any other musical piece in history in the background of reports aired on our own TV stations. But even then I couldn’t make peace with the fact that it was still wrong. I couldn’t justify doing something wrong by putting it on the system because it would’ve been synonymous with me saying “I know prostitution is wrong but I benefit from it because our government condones it”.
Then I started taking it out on the system of copyrights. I resolved that software owners were greedy people who only cared about making money and completely disregarded poor students who could never afford their software (bear in mind that I live in a country where student discounts on softwares almost don’t exist because no one would even think about owning the original softwares). So I decided to go Open Source.
I found out about the wonderful world of Open Source which was offered at my favourite price — absolutely FREE. So I replaced Windows with Linux and got a free replacement for pretty much every one of the softwares I needed for my work. It was great.
But anyone who has ever dabbled long enough with Open Source will tell you that even though you’re getting something really amazing for the price you’re paying — nothing — it still doesn’t beat the paid software. And the reason was simple: In one case you had people working for free to develop free replicas of the paid software you wanted, one that could only hope to mimic all of its wonderful features and in another case you had piles of money being thrown into the making of a great software that involved a huge team of (to say the least) researchers, engineers, designers and developers, all of whom were getting the revenue for all their hard labor.
It doesn’t take a genius to say that the paid version will always be better. But at the time it was all I could afford, so I was more than happy for the time being.
But when I was starting up my first recording studio a couple of years ago with actual money dedicated for this purpose, I was set on buying original softwares no matter how much it was going to cost me, even though most people (even shop owners) would give me weird looks when I told them I wanted to buy original copies. I figured I was to use this studio to make money out of it and I was in no way going to rob these software companies from their right to see the fruit of their labor. You will say but these software companies are making millions upon millions and my contribution or the lack thereof will not affect them in any way and you’re right. My contribution is but a drop in their ocean but it’s not about that, it’s about the principle. Stealing is stealing whether it’s an egg or an ox and I’m keen on doing the right thing no matter how unpopular it can be.
My fight with the truth however was far from being over, because even though I had solved one part of the issue, there was still the problem of figuring out what to do with the huge library of music and film I had acquired illegally over the years.
I can honestly say that in my entire life I haven’t bought more than ten original albums and even that is borderline overstatement because I had to spend a number of minutes trying to stretch it to ten even counting in the albums I got as gifts for other people. But the overwhelming majority of the music in my library was music I had amassed over the years either through peers I personally knew or anonymous peers on the internet through torrent softwares.
I had a big library of music that I loved and I was in no way going to give that up. But no matter how hard I wrestled inwardly with the idea and presented my arguments, I just couldn’t win the case that it was still sugar-coated stealing. I tried hiding behind the fact that if it weren’t for piracy, these artists wouldn’t have even dreamed of getting the kind of exposure they had here in Lebanon and if it weren’t for piracy I wouldn’t have found out about them to begin with; so in fact these artists should be thankful for piracy because either way I would’ve never gone out and bought their expensive albums — bear in mind that the minimum wage here is far less than in the US, so $13 here for a music album is considered a commodity one can go without, especially if it can be offered for free.
But fact was that their music was intended to be sold and if they wanted their music to be distributed for free they would’ve done so themselves like some artists do. So no matter how I turned it, I just couldn’t get away from the fact that I was stealing. I had in my hands music that I didn’t pay for and it was against the consent of its proprietors. The same was with the film library that I had.
So faced with the harsh and undeniable reality that what I was doing was wrong, I found myself at a crossroads. It was either I continued what I was doing and tried further numbing my conscience by either putting it on the system or revolting against the greed of copyright owners or claiming I’m living under grace not law or I stopped doing what I was doing because I actually wanted the system to change.
Hence I made the very unorthodox step a few days ago of deleting my whole iTunes library along with my film library and every software that came illegally preloaded on my iMac when I bought it two years ago.
Was it easy? Heck no! I had to delete the music I grew up listening to and the music that has become part of me throughout the years. To name a few: Bon Jovi, Creed, Alter Bridge, Dream Theater, Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, Pearl Jam, Misty Edwards, Third Day… And we’re talking about full discographies here, not just sporadic songs or even a few albums.
Am I an idiot for doing that? Probably. By Lebanese standards I am considered an idiot for shooting myself in the foot like that, especially that of the many softwares I deleted was the Adobe Master Collection which I absolutely loved and which if I were to buy would’ve cost me a hefty $5000.
But I want to see change in Lebanon. We can’t go on complaining about corruption while getting high on its sweet spots. Corruption has to be fought as a whole and we can’t go picking and choosing what we want to keep and what we want to go.
For change to happen it has to start with ourselves.
I want to see student discounts on softwares, not only that but I want to see a big reduction in software prices as a whole — a reduction that is scaled according to our minimum wage and living costs. But in order to see that happen, we have to stop using illegal software.
I want to see legal music streaming services like Spotify and movie streaming services like Netflix becoming available in our country and I want to see items that are not usually available in our iTunes Store or on Amazon and other online stores becoming available for us and at a price that we can afford. But for that to happen we need to stop copying music illegally and start respecting copyrights. (Same goes to movies and books).
I am an artist myself and ideally I wish everyone would buy my music. But this is farfetched because not everyone can do that. Of course I don’t want the right to listen to my music to become an exclusive right for people who can only afford it, but I’d like people to ask me first before they copy my music or use it in their audiovisual works. And as I like to be treated, I need to treat other people.
So let’s talk about these things. I’m sure we can find ways that could please both end parties, ways that would ensure products are becoming affordable for the biggest amount of people and at the same time delivered in ways that would protect copyrights and repay people for their hard work.
This is but a fraction of the things that need to change in Lebanon. But change has to start somewhere and like I said, it has to start with ourselves. While we might not be able to control the corruption that other people are responsible for, we can at least stop contributing to corruption as a whole and do our part in the grand scheme of things. I can tell you it won’t be easy. Change is a process that doesn’t just happen overnight. But the good news is that we can make it.
Are you willing to pay the price with me?