For old-fashioned CDs and DVDs, there is no hope

The digital age has brought with it a host of moral quandaries. Simply, the concept of asking to people to pay for content is not easy in a digital world.

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Customers of Zain, the pan-Arabian telecommunications network operator, can download songs from Ehh fi Amal (Yes, There is Hope), the latest album from Fairuz, the iconic Lebanese singer.

Zain, whose tagline is "A wonderful world", has positioned itself as close to the cutting edge of popular culture as is possible for a company from an ostensibly conservative region.

It has embraced the mobile phone's multimedia elements and, through its Zain Create service, on which the CD is listed, offers its customers, of which I am one, a whole assortment of downloads - audio and video - that quite frankly are too complicated for someone in their 40s, like me, to totally comprehend.

The Fairuz agreement was a coup. Zain wants to appeal to Arabian youth with its latest offering (even though it is mildly ironic that the latest technology still seeks out a 75-year-old singer to position a young and dynamic brand) and it knows that the phone will soon surpass the basic MP3 player as the personal hi-fi of choice (in the same way that many people who decades ago would have taken bad pictures with a Kodak instamatic now snap away with their Nokia or Motorola).

But despite Zain's apparent energy and vision, the fact remains that the digital age has brought with it a host of moral quandaries. Simply, the concept of asking people to pay for content is not easy in a digital world in which no one pays for anything unless they have to.

Take my kids. They create playlists and download individual tracks from the internet without paying a penny. Do not ask me how; I don't really want to know, but I suspect they get their music from YouTube. They certainly don't buy CDs and it is not hard to see why sales in the region have dropped by 30 per cent in the past decade. In Beirut, Virgin is the only retail chain that sells original CDs and DVDs - and even there, as far as I could see, the aisles are depressingly empty.

The local DVD store seems to be taking a bigger hit. One of my children's favourite shops is a dubious-looking outlet around the corner from where we live in Beirut. The shop window, or vitrine, as they say in this part of town, is "disguised" with beach towels and garish soft toys, but once inside the customer is confronted by row upon row of pirated DVDs on sale for a mere US$1.30 (Dh4.77).

It is, if you like, their corner candy shop, where they spend their allowance.

The originals at Virgin cost about 10 times more so. Given that price difference, my kids are unlikely to dwell upon - even though they are aware of it - the argument that every time they buy a knock-off film they are denying the owners a slice of the action.

"But we wouldn't watch it in the cinema or by an original DVD," they argue whenever I try to make a token public service announcement on the matter. "In a way it's a good way for us to get to know actors and then maybe we would go and see their films in the cinema or buy the DVDs," they add with a triumphant flourish.

Before you say it, I know I should be more draconian in not allowing them to engage in black market activities. And yes, much of the proceeds from illegal digital content is said to fund terror groups, organised crime and drug syndicates, while the US film industry is said to lose about $3 billion every year because of it. The trouble is, I buy them too.

And I am not alone. My colleague makes regular trips to his "man" in Beirut's southern suburbs - although to be fair similar "men" can be found all over town. Last month he "ordered" the entire 11 seasons of Frasier. He is a father and committed environmentalist, possessing strong moral fibre. And yet he is, if we are to follow the industry trailer (that ironically also appears on many of the rip-off movies), prepared to steal. "I have no problem," he shrugged. "What do I care about some Hollywood producer losing a few bucks? It's not an issue for me."

For the Lebanese, it's also a non-issue. They see the government lining its own pockets, while environmental genocide, wholesale corruption, the destruction of the nation's cultural heritage and the rule of the gun are rampant.

Why then pick on a guy, such as the owner of the DVD shop, who is very polite and, in the eyes of the Lebanese at least, an enterprising young man?

My kids may have a point when they argue that Hollywood should just accept the losses and write them off as free marketing. James Cameron's Avatar is a not a movie that I would pay to see in the cinema, much less buy on DVD. However, I picked it up at the towel shop the other week and whiled away an afternoon. Nothing to write home about, but its grandeur and special effects did remind me how me how much I enjoyed Titanic and the Terminator series.

Surely that's got to be good in the greater scheme of things? Or have I been living in the Third World for too long?

Michael Karam is a communication and publishing consultant based in Beirut