War against content piracy not about cash only; it's a fight for Africa's soul

An illustration of content piracy. [Getty Images]

When we turn a blind eye to content piracy, we undermine the ability of African storytellers to express themselves. By fighting to protect intellectual property, we keep local productions viable, and we ensure our people have a voice.

Shaka iLembe, Big Brother Africa, Idols, and The Real Housewives… all of these are expressions of our society, showcased by talented creators and production crews, telling African stories for African audiences.

All are threatened by content piracy. A nation’s creative output is a fundamental part of its identity. One could even argue that art and creative works are what allow a group of people to define themselves as a nation.

In centuries past, those artworks might have included pottery, sculpture, textile and clothing design as well as religious and cultural artefacts. Today, these cultural signifiers are still produced, but they exist alongside contemporary art forms that are equally important in defining national culture today.

Those modern art forms include film, television, recorded music, websites, virtual environments and a host of other digital content. Digital channels make it easier to distribute this creative cultural content and to reach more people. However, the digital economy comes with a significant risk of piracy.

Content piracy is a form of digital theft which misappropriates creative work without fair compensation for the work’s creators and rightsholders. Digital content piracy is an insidious crime. It initially appears to be a mild, victimless misdemeanour, but when it becomes rampant, it can destroy entire creative industries.

Content piracy deals a death blow to local creatives when audiences begin to access their work on alternative channels and legitimate platforms are starved of viewers. The legitimate licence holders are then unable to build businesses on funding and creating original local content.

This is especially relevant in Africa. When it’s no longer viable to produce local, African content – because it’s being pirated – it becomes easier and more financially viable to simply purchase cheap international content.

Audiences are then provided with films and shows that reflect the values of the developed world – not Africa. The idea of a nation expressing itself, telling its stories through its cultural output, is then undermined. It becomes a case of rich, industrialised nations colonising the minds of African audiences with generic, Western content.

Content piracy supports cultural imperialism. When Africans no longer see themselves reflected in the art they consume, it distorts how they see themselves. Conversely, when Africa stops exporting content to the world, it distorts the way the world sees Africa. Films, series, television programming… all of this content is about cultural representation. When we undermine a country’s creative industries by stealing content, we sabotage their ability to tell their own stories.

The scale of the content piracy problem is enormous.
 In the US, an industry report estimated that digital video piracy was costing the economy between 230,000 and 560,000 jobs every year, and up to $115.3 billion (Sh16.48 trillion) in reduced gross domestic product.

How about Africa? An Irdeto survey has found that piracy is already taking root. It found that users in five major African territories made 17.4 million visits to the top 10 identified piracy sites on the internet in a three-month period. African-based organisations like Irdeto, Partners Against Piracy and the Kenya Copyright Board are doing sterling work to protect intellectual property and ensure that content creators retain the right to earn a living from their work.

However, it’s worth remembering that the war against content piracy is not simply a financial one. In many ways, it is a fight for the soul of Africa.

If we allow criminals to steal our creative output, we allow them to silence our voice and destroy an expression of our culture. We must continue that fight, and defend our right to make Africa’s voice heard – across the continent, and the world.

Leonard Agufa is the Head of Operations Support, MultiChoice Kenya