Monday, February 06, 2012

Not a matter of bad luck

This is my column today.

When presidential adviser for political affairs Ronald Llamas was caught on camera buying pirated DVDs, the public reacted with amused incredulity. Ang malas naman nya! What bad luck!

Many eventually called for his resignation primarily to spare the President from having to agonize over what is presumed to be a difficult ethical dilemma. Oh okay, there were those who maintained from the very start that Llamas deserved the boot for giving face to a guilty pleasure many in this country indulge in. But if we really come down to it, most everyone in this country agree with the President’s dismissive posture when he said he has more important things to attend to than pirated DVDs, presumably the impeachment trial of the Chief Justice and the …well, the impeachment trial.

I empathize with actor Ronnie Ricketts, head of the Optical Media Board and his team (which now includes another actor – Cesar Montano, rumored to be gunning for Ricketts’s post). How do you press on with the fight when no less than the President of the country declares on public television that the piracy problem in this country is the least of his concerns? Ouch, indeed.

And it certainly didn’t help matters when Ricketts admitted, also publicly, that buying pirated goods per se is not illegal in this country. I know it is not illegal; but for crying out loud, he didn’t have to shoot down his office’s main mandate. He could have coached the message in a way that communicated the importance of not buying pirated goods even if there is no legal impediment for doing so.

Of course the issue is not just about the fact that a cabinet secretary was caught on camera buying pirated DVDs in a public place. It’s not just about film and music piracy anymore. It’s now – supposedly - about the need for public officials to tread the straight and narrow path, a path that has acquired some complicated turns and bends.

But let’s first get back to the issue of that blurry but incriminating picture showing the presidential political adviser with a stash of contraband materials. That picture established certain facts, all of which are linked to each other like a Gordian knot.

First, despite the posturing of Ricketts and his team at the OMB, piracy is alive and thriving in this country. Second, that there are malls and legitimate commercial centers in this country that continue to sell or allow the selling of pirated goods. And third, that even the high and mighty in this country is not beyond patronizing pirated goods.

So is Llamas simply an unlucky person who happened to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time? I don’t think so. I know for a fact that the man is not stupid; there is a reason why he has the President’s ear and I don’t think it’s simply because Llamas belongs to that elite group that composes one of the three K’s (in this case, kabarilan or gunmates). Carelessness, perhaps? I don’t think so. This is a man with finely tuned political and survival instincts.

The answer becomes painfully obvious when we contextualize the current behavior against previous behavior. This is the second time that Llamas figured in a similar incident. Not so long ago, television cameras took damning evidence that he had long firearms in his vehicle. Sadly, the behavior is reflective of what seems to be the prevailing attitude of smug entitlement of many officials of this administration. Some have labeled it as the hacendero complex – the belief that certain things are morally right (or wrong) because they who are in power say so. Let’s note that Llamas has said he has apologized to the President but has conveniently left out the part about apologizing to the Filipino people.

I know many of us try to project this impression that we are epitomes of morality because we do not patronize pirated DVDs. The truth is that technology has made it almost impossible for ordinary mortals to distinguish pirated goods from those that are “originals.” Pirated blue ray discs that come in tin boxes and fancy packaging can easily be passed off as the real thing. Oh I know, there are certain ways one can differentiate the real McCoy from the counterfeit, but quite frankly who has the time or the inclination for that kind of nitpicking and quibbling?

Many of these movies and music are converted into digital form anyway which makes them virtually impossible to keep track of. I know lots and lots of people who do not patronize pirated DVDs and look down on people who do so but for a completely different reason. Why spend for pirated DVDs when you can download the darn thing from the Internet? Why carry around discs when you can simply copy the digital files from someone’s USB? Really, who can honestly say that they haven’t patronized – whether wittingly or unwittingly – pirated products?

The piracy problem is not going to be solved by simply conducting raids and passing more stringent laws. Even police authorities buy pirated DVDs (yes, I too have seen a number of policemen leafing through stacks of and buying pirated DVDs in stalls in Baclaran or Quiapo). Even if we do miraculously succeed in burning down the tons of DVDs that are produced everyday in this country and the factories that produce them, piracy is not going to stop. It will simply morph into other more creative forms. Advances in technology and limitless human creativity will always pave the way for newer and cheaper ways of sharing materials.

Part of the answer is in significantly reducing the price differential between original and pirated materials. If original DVDs cost only a little more than pirated materials, there is no reason for people to resort to buying pirated versions. And please, spare me the crap about how doing so would make the movie or music industry keel over. If people only regulate their greed the cost of non-pirated materials would be a lot cheaper. Most of the cost that is passed on to consumers includes advertising and the ridiculously expensive rates of celebrities.

So yes, buying pirated DVDs can also be interpreted as a form of rebellion.

If Llamas were not a cabinet secretary of an administration that aspires to very high standards of morality, being caught with a stash of pirated DVDs would not have been such a big deal. But sadly, Llamas is not an ordinary person. And this administration has aspirations of being far from ordinary.

Should Llamas be sacked for buying pirated DVDs? I don’t think so. However, the fact that this is the second offense would seem to justify such a move.


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