No, not piracy on the high seas. We’re going to take a look at copyright infringement, and this is a contentious topic so let’s be clear up front: in practically every jurisdiction around the world, piracy is illegal. I am categorically not encouraging it nor am I condoning it. This column aims to be an honest discussion on the moral and ethical implications only, not the legal ramifications.
The journey to writing this column began in July, when Star Trek: Lower Decks was announced. The announcement came with a US/Canada premiere date and weekly release schedule, but nothing for the rest of the world. Trekkies like myself who aren’t from North America held our breath and waited. More information about the show came out, but no international release date. Then a trailer was published, but again no international release date. Star Trek’s Comic-Con panel approached, and I considered this the last reasonable chance for news of an international broadcast. But again, fans were let down.
Lower Decks premiered on the 6th of August, but only for North American viewers. ViacomCBS not only chose not to broadcast the series internationally, they haven’t made any public statement on the issue. And don’t get this twisted around saying it isn’t the company’s fault because of coronavirus or some other issue; they are in full control over when to broadcast the series in the United States, and if they couldn’t secure the international broadcast rights for whatever reason before the 6th of August, it was entirely within their power to delay the series until they had come to an agreement with an international distributor or broadcaster. It was thus ViacomCBS’ decision – and their decision alone – for Lower Decks to be split up and shown to some fans but not others. And it is undeniably their decision not to address the problem in public.
In such an environment, is it any surprise that Trekkies outside the US and Canada turned to piracy to access the series? If it’s literally unavailable any other way, and there is radio silence on when it may become available, what choice to fans have? The answer is that there is no choice, and ViacomCBS made it that way. They practically invited piracy of Lower Decks not once but twice: first through the utterly moronic decision to segregate the show by geography, and secondly by not even giving lip service to the problem. Look at any social media post from official Star Trek pages in July and early August – each one received many comments asking about Lower Decks’ international broadcast, and every single one was ignored.
We can set aside my usual arguments about how this harms ViacomCBS’ own negotiating position – assuming they still plan to sell the show internationally – because that’s something I’ve covered repeatedly and it isn’t what this column is about. Purely from a moral and ethical standpoint, is it wrong to pirate Lower Decks?
When a television series, film, or video game is made available to the general public, I think most people would say that piracy is not acceptable. Most of us agree that the actors and behind-the-scenes staff deserve to be paid for their work, and the investors in the company who bankrolled the project deserve to see a return on their investment. We can talk at length about how some large media corporations make excessive profits for a select few shareholders and managers, but as a general rule, most people agree with the principle of paying entertainers for the entertainment they provide.
This is the reality of how entertainment works. Companies producing a television series, video game, or film need to raise money to create their project and see it to fruition, and somehow they need to recoup that money as well as make a profit to fund their next title. Nowadays there are myriad ways to do this, including streaming platforms online. If everybody engaged in piracy, it would be very hard for any company to make any new work of entertainment, because they would have no way of making their money back.
So when a work of entertainment is made available, most people stick to doing one of two things – pay to enjoy it, or don’t participate.
But that argument is only valid in cases where content is available via lawful methods. Lower Decks, as we’ve already established, is only in that category if you’re lucky enough to live in the United States or Canada; the two countries combined are home to less than 5% of the world’s population. So if 95% of the population are denied access to something, what options do they have? Wait an indeterminate and possibly unlimited amount of time? It’s been over a month since Lower Decks debuted and in that time ViacomCBS has said precisely nothing. How long are we supposed to sit on our hands?
In the case of another recent series that made this mistake, waiting became incredibly problematic. We could argue from the point of view of “hardcore” Trekkies that nothing in Lower Decks has been a massive spoiler. There isn’t one character or one moment to point to – at least, in the first six episodes – which if it had been spoiled ahead of time would have majorly ruined our enjoyment. But in some shows that isn’t the case. Disney+ launched in the United States months ahead of the rest of the world, and one of its big draws was the first ever live-action Star Wars series: The Mandalorian. The end of the first episode contained perhaps the biggest twist in the entire first season: the Mandalorian’s target is a child, nicknamed “baby Yoda” by the internet.
Baby Yoda was everywhere in November and December last year. Screenshots and clips were all over the internet, and baby Yoda was in so many memes! Friends and family members of mine who don’t know the first thing about Star Wars had seen baby Yoda – so imagine being a Star Wars fan, unable to watch The Mandalorian simply because of where you live, having that massive reveal and the emotional core of the series spoiled months before you could see it.
Before the dawn of the internet it wouldn’t have mattered. In the 1990s, when I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation and the other shows of that era, the fact that we in the UK were getting them a couple of years after their American premiere wasn’t something I ever noticed. Even within Star Trek fan clubs and at Star Trek fan events in the ’90s, there were no spoilers. And yes, I went to numerous such meet-ups and events at the time.
But in 2020, companies can’t get away with that any more. Not because of the tiny minority of people who take a kind of twisted pleasure in deliberately spoiling something for others, but because social media and the internet in general becomes awash with spoilers. If you follow Star Trek’s official social media, as I do, you’ll have picked up numerous spoilers for Lower Decks, as their social media channels throw out plot points, lists of Easter eggs, and all manner of other things almost daily. And that’s not to mention fan-run pages and groups. In short, if you’re a fan of anything in 2020, chances are that, in some way, you go online to engage in that fandom, and that’s a breeding ground for spoilers.
In the case of The Mandalorian, baby Yoda hit the mainstream such that even the most careful fan wouldn’t have been able to avoid seeing or hearing about it. And when you’ve been burned by spoilers once or twice, it’s very easy to get upset and annoyed – and to turn to piracy.
When it comes to shows like The Mandalorian and Star Trek: Lower Decks, I think what I’d say is that piracy may still be legally wrong, but it’s much harder to claim that it’s morally wrong. We live in an interconnected, globalised world, where the internet means people from everywhere can be connected to each other and to the franchises they love at all times. Companies like ViacomCBS have actively encouraged this kind of globalism because it means a bigger market and more profit. But creating a global brand comes with a responsibility that extends beyond national borders. In the global, interconnected world that these massive corporations have encouraged, the least they could do is make their content available. ViacomCBS has been keen to promote Star Trek as a brand outside the United States, even setting up events in Europe like Destination Star Trek where actors and producers routinely draw huge crowds.
The franchise, at ViacomCBS’ behest, has become a global brand. There are Star Trek fans from the Falkland Islands to Timbuktu, all because the company has chosen to sell Star Trek and its merchandise to every country it can. But it seems that ViacomCBS only cares about its international audience for as much money as it can wring out of us, because as soon as there’s a tiny bump in the road they’re quite happy to cut us off and not share their most recent creation.
Star Trek doesn’t belong to Americans. It depicts a future where humanity is working together to learn and grow together to build a better world, something which seems the complete antithesis of a major American corporation cutting off its overseas fans with no information thrown our way.
With ViacomCBS being so disrespectful to its international audience, is it any wonder that Lower Decks has become one of the most-pirated shows of the last few weeks? I don’t think it should be a surprise to anyone, because when there is no other way to access the series, piracy – by definition – becomes the only option. Anyone with a computer and even the tiniest inclination can find out how to download or stream Lower Decks, and when you consider that for 95% of the people around the world – including many Trekkies and casual fans of the franchise – it can’t be lawfully accessed, from a moral and philosophical point of view I can’t see any reason why they shouldn’t.
Piracy is definitely against the law – but in this case, that doesn’t make it wrong.
Downloading and uploading of copyrighted material (“piracy” for the purposes of this discussion) is against the law in practically every jurisdiction around the world. This column should not be interpreted as encouraging piracy or copyright infringement for any television series, film, video game, or entertainment franchise. The Star Trek brand – including Star Trek: Lower Decks – remains the copyright of ViacomCBS. This column contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.