Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Up from the Underground

April 4th, 2011 · 5 Comments


Though I only recently became aware of the fact that Burkina Faso is a hotbed of film production, I was completely unsurprised to learn that the nation’s movie industry is deeply troubled. The primary culprit, as you might surmise, is piracy; as cinemas have vanished with the proliferation of affordable DVD players, the markets in Ouagadougou have become flooded with $1-per-disc knock-offs of the latest domestic releases. Burkina Faso’s government lacks the resources to enforce copyright laws on a wide scale, and so pirates risk relatively little by peddling illegal copies of movies.

Yet the situation may not be as hopeless as it seems. During the Burkina Faso’s latest film festival, a Nigerian journalist visited a pirate’s shop in Ouagadougou. She came away from the experience thinking that if the film industry is willing to be pliable on price, the pirates might well prefer to go legit than continue to exist in the shadows:

The video seller explained to me how his business worked. He would prefer to sell legal copies of the films, he claimed, but he didn’t know how to get them. When he went to Lagos, he would go to the market and buy films from the marketers. He didn’t know how to contact the producers personally. He had one legal copy of a Ghanaian film that the filmmaker had brought personally to Ouagadougou, which sold for three times as much as a pirated film. He went to Lome to buy pirated films brought from China, and if there was a video, such as a recording from a television programme, that he wanted more copies of to sell, he would take it to Lome. From there it would be taken to Lagos and reproduced there…

Pirates seem to be reaching much wider markets than the current legal distribution networks have been able to reach. If there were some way for producers or legal marketers to partner with the pirates and turn their business legal, they would instantly reach a far wider audience than they currently have access to. Burkina Faso’s model of the holographic seal (which the National Film and Video Censor’s Board in Nigeria is also trying to implement) is one way to go. On the one hand, this seems positive, that the artists are actually seeing the profits and not struggling with pirates. On the other hand, I wonder if the lack of piracy limits the proliferation of their product to other markets in Africa, and if the dramatically different price between the legal and the pirated materials discourages people from purchasing legal copies.

The pricing issue is key. We assume that over time, the market will set the appropriate prices for goods. But what if that time horizon is so great that an industry collapses before the market can determine the right level? This is something I worry about right now in my own field; apologies to whoever determines such matters, but there is no way the Kindle version of Now the Hell Will Start should cost $13.

I’m not totally convinced that every film pirate in Burkina Faso would come in from the cold if offered legal copies of movies at cut rates, but it’s worth a shot. Everyone seems to know where the pirates operate, after all; it’s just a matter of the film industry swallowing some pride and admitting that the present course is untenable. If it does so, then today’s pirates might become tomorrow’s ordinary salesmen.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Mark

    You are absolutely right. The problem is current pricing models take in legacy overhead that is not directly related to the product.
    In the 90s I was part of a team that worked out pricing in the music industry. We reported that people would buy tracks online at 99c if they could access everything.
    They ignored that paper and many others and now they pay 30% to a third party.
    I now work in film, and the same process is happening here, and book publishing is going the same way.
    The public don’t want to steal media, but if you don’t give them what they want at a fair price (possibly only a small fraction of current inflated levels) technology will allow us all to steal it.

    My hope is that your book isn’t in the next huge torrent file of ebooks I come across, because 70% of the price is paying rent for your publisher’s office space and cellphone bills.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Mark: Many thanks for the thoughtful comment.

    For books, I think the big question is how the shifting economics will change the nature of what gets written. I think it’s inevitable that advances will shrink, in exchange for writers getting a piece of each sale from the get-go. The downside there is that books are incredibly labor intensive–much more so than albums, or even movies. (At least movies are group efforts.) How will writers support themselves during the process, which inevitably requires several months of stepping away from all other work?

    Which is not to say I’m pessimistic at all. Writers write–that’s what we do, it’s an integral part of our individual identities. We’ll find a way, and I think we’ll benefit over the long run from the ways in which digital technology can bolster our capacity to tell rich stories. (See: Piano Demon)

    Doubt anyone cares enough about my first book to rip it to a Torrent site–for better or for worse, I reckon.

  • Copywronged | Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

    [...] whole sad account of Khan’s penury is worth reading, because it eloquently makes a point I’ve made here before: pirates often exist not because consumers are total craven, but rather because legitimate products [...]

  • Carmen McCain

    Hi, I’m the “Nigerian journalist” you quoted here, and I’m a female… :-) I am perhaps a bit optimistic to think that marketers who sell pirated cds would be willing to leave piracy altogether (it’s a lucrative deal for those who actually pirate the films) but I DO think that if prices came down and there was some way to legitimately hook up the vast network of marketers who sell pirated videos with the producers of the films that it could make African film industries much more powerful. As a legal Nollywood marketer in Brooklyn told me “We don’t have a bootleg problem, we have a supply problem.” Because legal copies are not available and there is a demand, then of course those films are bootlegged. But the number of people who actually watch the films is mindboggling.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Carmen McCain: Thanks a million for the comment, and sorry about the gender snafu–should be fixed now.

    Totally agreed about the price-point issue. I think that certain successful distribution models (e.g. Netflix, iTunes) have proven that consumers are willing to pay something. The problem is that “something” is well below what the industry is used to extracting. And so piracy fills in the gaps.

    Nollywood is unique in that production budgets have remained quite low, which you’d think would allow for more reasonable official price points. As an aside, I do wonder if there is any correlation between budget and box-office success in Nollywood. Is there evidence that the more producers spend on films, the greater their return?

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