Bootleg albums, obscure public domain releases and forgotten films unearthed by specialist labels – not all illicit film and music releases should be condemned as ‘piracy’.
I’ve long thought that there are distinct differences between bootleg movies, pirate discs, unconvincing claims of public domain status and other forms of unlicensed and legally questionable physical releases, though all naturally have blurred lines separating them and often come from the same sources. So on the occasions that you have to lump them all in together, I’ve taken to calling these releases DODOs – Discs of Dubious Origin. And at the risk of outraging official distributors, I’m going to make an argument in favour of them. Well, most of them.
First off, let’s write off the most openly illegal and opportunist discs, the pirate editions of mainstream movies. These are increasingly the most unlikely to appear on physical media these days, though you’d be surprised at how many still appear on market stalls and in countries with rather more lax copyright enforcement. These are – probably -going to be the discs produced and sold by criminal organisations rather than movie fans, though even with these I have doubts about the frankly hysterical claims that have long been made by the authorities – the oft-stated suggestion that pirate discs somehow finance drug cartels and people traffickers (those activities apparently being so low-profit that they can only be sustained by the sale of dodgy copies of the new Mission Impossible film) without any evidence being provided beyond ‘well, of course they are’. I have no time for these releases. Beyond taking a stance against the growing corporate control that giant conglomerates hold over the entertainment industry while still wanting to see the latest blockbuster release without adding to their obscene profits – which I guess is a legitimate reason of sorts – or wanting to see the uncut version of a film that has been cut or otherwise edited in your territory, then there is little justification for pirating new releases… and certainly not onto physical media. So let’s leave that aside for now and move on.
The type of discs that I’m talking about are a mixed bag of unofficial releases that, far from biting into the profits of distributors and producers, simply fill a gap in the market. This gap can be anything from a film being unavailable due to some rights snarl-up through distributor disinterest due to a perceived lack of commercial viability to simply making available that which has been deleted. This last point is perhaps more controversial than the others. Specialist distributors these days increasingly release films in limited editions, and this is usually a calculated guess at just how many copies they are likely to sell to both their regular buyers and people who just want that film. It does sometimes mean that a movie becomes unavailable while there are still people who want to buy it. Add to this the issue of rights expiring and companies going bust, and you can see why there might be an audience for facsimile Blu-ray or DVD editions of those releases. I actually picked up a couple recently – I won’t say where, obviously – and have to admit that it was a somewhat accidental event. OK, I had my suspicions. The discs were suspiciously cheap and in resealable wrappers rather than shrinkwrap. But these were titles that are now unavailable in legitimate versions anymore unless you want to pay exorbitant eBay reseller prices. The original releases are long since deleted and the films have not been available for several years, so it’s hard to see who exactly will be suffering from the sale of these bootleg editions apart from those aforementioned eBay resellers – and frankly, fuck those opportunists.
Films that have not had a release at all seem to be even fairer game for the DODO. Film fairs in the UK were, for years, awash with DVD bootlegs of films that were otherwise unavailable – sometimes due to censorship reasons, sometimes because they simply hadn’t been released on disc (and often, for the two reasons combined). The packaging effort on these discs varied – the most ambitious not only had newly designed covers but printed labels as well and came with additional extras – everything from trailers to documentaries that were equally unlikely to see legit release. You would always be taking a chance on these discs – the unpredictability of the DVD-R in the early 2000s meant that it might not play on your particular player and even the slightest scuff might render a disc useless. The films themselves were usually lifted from VHS and so not exactly the best quality. But long before the boutique distributor was a thing, this was the only way to obtain rare and obscure titles – and certainly, the only way to buy classic adult movies back when the owners of labels like Vinegar Syndrome were still at school.
No matter how hard you might try, it is difficult to make a case that this was hurting anyone financially. No one was buying these releases instead of a legit release – the moment any of these films became legitimately available, the collectors would obviously dump their VHS dupe in favour of the remastered edition with copious extras. Of course they would. All these discs did was fill a gap for the insatiable collector.
It’s similar to the fatuous arguments made against music bootlegs. Let’s be blunt – no one in the 1970s/1980s was buying a Led Zeppelin live bootleg LP for £20+ instead of The Song Remains the Same for a quarter of the price. Music bootlegs fed the collector mentality, the person who could never have enough. Those buyers had already exhausted every legitimate album and single by their favourite bands, often in multiple versions; bootleg albums just filled the demand for more. Beyond that, they had cultural importance – these releases often became the only record of an era, documenting classic shows or even entire tours that would have otherwise gone unrecorded, alongside the demos and alternate cuts that would later become the staple of the collector’s edition box set. Bootlegs showed that there was this insatiable market with money to burn long before the corporate record labels realised it and began issuing every recording that they could find (some sourced, of course, from those same bootleg albums previously dismissed as inferior and worthless).
There are other variants of the DODO – the curious interpretation of ‘public domain’ that allows US PD specialists to release 1970s European films that are definitely still copyrighted but have US prints that lack that copyright info and so are seen as PD; how many copies of Count Dracula and His Vampire Bride have been issued even though the blurry print in question is just a retitling of Hammer’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula? That copyright holders don’t take more action on this is fascinating, because they must know about it by now – but perhaps they are aware that these substandard editions don’t impact on the sales of the legit releases at all. In any case, public domain (which, yes, does not exist legally in the UK other than by default – if a US film is PD in America, who can a distributor buy the rights from?) has arguably saved a lot of old films from obscurity. The prints may be variable (though some are unexpectedly excellent) but who would be issuing a lot of those Bela Lugosi movies if they had to pay for the rights?
The PD argument was what legitimised a lot of the US VHS distributors that you would find advertising in magazines like Psychotronic back in the day. Something Weird made its reputation on legally dubious releases that were taken from Mike Vraney’s vast collection of 16mm and 35mm film prints – and that label saved more obscure movies than any legitimate film archive has (and made them much more available to the public). Yes, some of the prints were barely watchable on tape – but without his sterling efforts, these films would be lost forever. Other labels like Sinister Cinema did likewise, making rare, forgotten and ignored movies available to the public once more. What they did may have been, technically, piracy – but they arguably helped build the audience for the off-mainstream titles that now sustain the boutique labels of today.
Outside the very specialist collectors market – 1930s westerns for instance – it does feel as though the non-PD DODO has somewhat bitten the dust these days. Between the relative ease of downloading from sites like Cinemageddon, the vast amount of content on YouTube and the increasing demand for quality from the Blu-ray/UHD collector market, the dubious physical releases of titles that you just can’t get legally have become a thing of the past. This is a pity in many ways. There will always be those films that won’t (or can’t) be picked up for restoration and ‘ultimate edition’ release but which a handful of people would still love to own as something less transient than a download. We should never forget that today’s specialist labels and collector’s box sets would not exist if the grey market had not paved the way, sustaining interest in and availability of forgotten and ignored movies, allowing the fan press to see and write about these movies back when no one in the mainstream had even heard of Mario Bava, let alone Andy Milligan. If we leave aside straight-forward piracy, then bootlegging only ever builds an audience – it costs copyright holders nothing and at best, shows that there is a market for something that might have previously been considered unviable. We should all be in favour of that.
Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!