South Africa is ranked 14th in the world for illegal downloads.

There's no getting away from it: South Africans clearly think pirating movies and music is acceptable. The big question is why, and whether it's possible to change the national mindset.

It's a real problem. South Africans are estimated as downloading one million pirated movies a month from sites such as Pirate Bay, KickAss Torrent and others. SA is apparently ranked 14th in the world for illegal downloads: a "hall of shame" in which Brazil takes top honours.

The figure is worrying for reasons as diverse as illegal downloads fill the coffers of organised crime to society failing to support creative endeavours. However, it still doesn't tell the whole story, because a new breed of sites have emerged which allow films and music to be streamed, and thus, technically, not downloaded. Trade in counterfeit DVDs is also brisk in SA.

Rationalising wrongdoing

One explanation that has been floated for the root of the problem lies in the fact that, for a long time, South Africans had no way to access digital content legally. However, this explanation really doesn't hold water, as this phenomenon is and has been shared by many other countries worldwide.

There is also the fact that many people assume that with paying for Internet access comes the unlimited right to consume any and all content, at no charge. This is similar to another national mindset that says it's alright to pay once-upon-a-time for municipal services, and then just stop paying for them when other priorities are deemed to have gotten in the way of people's monthly utility commitments.

Another factor in "legitimising" pirating is that even though legal channels for obtaining digital content are now available – iTunes has now launched locally, for example, and premier local video-on-demand (VOD) service VIDI has launched the first local online movie-streaming service – South Africans typically have to wait some time to access the latest global content on VOD.

According to previous media articles, the South African Federation against Copyright Theft estimates illegal downloads cost the film industry R300 million to R600 million, depending on whether one uses video rentals or cinema tickets as the basis of the calculation. The impact on local artists' creativity and general motivation to produce work is probably impossible to calculate.

A faceless corporation which is perceived to be making too much profit is fair game.
Unfortunately, the person in the street believes the only losers are big businesses which can afford to lose their heard-earned rands. The only problem with this erroneous thinking is that it's, well... wrong. Artists produce creative content, not corporations, and with that production comes the expectation of fair reward.

Wasn't me

People typically find it easier to rationalise illegal activities when the impact of these activities is diffused. Certain crimes are incorrectly seen as ‘victimless', because the direct consequence of these actions on individuals cannot be seen.

Following this logic, it's easy to bribe an official even though it's been shown that society as a whole is harmed. Similarly, downloading a song or video from a pirate site is not perceived to harm an individual directly – a faceless corporation which is perceived to be making too much profit is fair game. The effect on individual artists is conveniently ignored.

It is also easier for people to steal information than physical items (such as DVDs) or money.

In this way, the immorality of illegal actions is disguised – and once that occurs, it is hard to reverse. People need to think hard about the impact of their decisions, and this is especially important – and more difficult – in an environment where there is a belief that ‘everyone does it'.

South Africans have to accept that ethical behaviour must be consistent. The public cannot rail against corporate and government corruption if they act unethically and download films illegally. People cannot justify piracy by conveniently arguing that legal avenues to access digital content do not exist, or that the costs are too high.

There is a local streaming solution to support, and everyone needs to contribute to changing the moral climate of the country.

Finally, and reassuringly, enforcement of copyright laws in the digital realm is becoming more vigorous in SA. A South African was recently criminally convicted for the uploading of a film to Pirate Bay. While downloading a film isn't necessarily criminal, it is illegal and opens one up to a civil action.