Pirates – Trolling the Cyberverse
First they’ll steal your music. Then, they’ll slow-roast your children, eat them, and wash them down with a big glass of “#dealwithit.”
Pirates of digital material are dirty rotten scoundrels; rapscallions of the highest order – intent on infringing the basic rights of the creator to make money from production. Anarchists, with “maximum destruction” as their mantra, they traipse one-by-one out of the real world and off into the cyber-distance, lead by the biggest and the ugliest of them all – Kim Dotcom, the Pied Piper of Piracy.
Or are they…?
There is no question that digital piracy is a pervasive part of modern culture. Google itself has reported detection of 7.6 million sites, such as Beemp3.com, The Pirate Bay and Demonoid, which use peer-to-peer or torrent technology to allow people to share files for free across the internet.
It remains to be seen, though, whether the panic this has inspired among music execs, film producers, journalists and so on, is entirely justifiable.
Piracy is Everywhere
If Google can be used as any sort of barometer for popular feeling and, let’s face it, as one of the biggest internet corporations, it’s probably earned that badge, then piracy is everywhere.
Most searches for specific MP3 downloads or film streaming on Google will still produce pages of results linking to sites that encourage copyright infringement, despite efforts by politicians to force Google to demote them. This shows Google’s PageRank algorhythm to be picking an overwhelming number of these sites out as popular or important.
In July 2012, the government in the UK submitted to pressure from User Rights groups and threw out the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which was supposed to be a measure against the free reproduction of digital content across file-sharing mechanisms.
Similarly in the US, there has been an enormous level of resistance to the introduction of SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) as it is known in the House of Representatives or PIPA, as it is known in the Senate.
So, although some heavy-hitters in the piracy trade occasionally do get shut down – Kim Dotcom, founder of Megaupload, is currently being prosecuted for £175m worth of alleged online piracy and Anton Vickerman, owner of SurfTheChannel, has been sentenced to four years in jail, for example – the general feeling is that the support for piracy is strong enough to prevent any effective, overarching crack-down.
Will it Destroy Culture?
There are quite a lot of extremely worried people out there. Not least, the fat cats at record labels who are keeping a keen eye on dwindling sales figures.
These are the sort of people who sit around imagining droves of ninja’s wearing Guy Fawkes masks swooping down and snatching the cash out of their hands in the name of “fair use”, just for the fun of it.
And there certainly is an argument to be made for piracy presenting a threat to culture “as we know it”.
You only have to dip into Robert Levine’s book Free Ride to understand why some might feel legitimately concerned. Levine, an ex-executive editor of Billboard magazine, is mainly concerned with the disruption of creativity.
He fears that a market in which content is forcibly free, will provide little incentive for creative types to keep creating….and we will all dissolve into an inane swamp of pokes, likes, lolz and OMGs.
He is right, in some sense. The “creatives” (if they are to be identified as some sort of exclusive tribe) probably won’t continue to create and output material in the form and volume that has defined the industry “as we know it”.
Some Pirates Are Actually Big Fat Trolls
The image of bespectacled tech-nerds sitting around in saggy Y-fronts discussing their next attempt to thwart the government is ridiculous, but not completely unfounded. Some pirates do bear resemblance to the big fat trolls of music-exec fantasy.
Kim Dotcom was probably a regular guy until he ate all three Billy Goats Gruff and retreated back into his wire-strewn lair, laughing at the feeble attempts by the US to extradite him.
Being a pirate on the grounds that you are a bit tight and/or lazy and would rather download a track because you can, or because it would be way too much effort click all the right buttons on iTunes, is one thing.
Being a pirate on the grounds of some misinformed sense of sociological Marxism is quite another.
As with all cultural movements – capitalism, feminism, to name but a few – there will be extremists. In this case, the extremism takes the form of a rag-tag brigade of hackers, nerds, User’s Rights defenders and the terminally dumb who claim pirate rights in the name of “freedom of speech”. Bizarre, you think? It sure is…
Taking (the inventor of the internet) Tim Berners-Lee’s “This is For Everyone” quote a little bit too far, this bunch has tried to claim that piracy is defensible in the name of freedom, civil liberty and equality.
The EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), a prevalent user’s rights group, claims to be “defending free speech” by achieving “significant victories on behalf of consumers and the general public…bringing and defending lawsuits even when it means taking on the US government or large corporation.” Acting as the Robin Hood of the digital age, if you will.
More famously, Lawrence Lessig, one of America’s more influential intellectuals, who wrote the book Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity, writes “What’s at stake is our freedom – freedom to create, freedom to build, and ultimately, freedom to imagine.”
The world without copyright is, apparently, a utopian one… Who knew it was that simple? Thanks Lawrence.
But is it all bad?
The trolls and the extremists, with their Guy Fawkes masks and their strangely manipulated Marxist principles are full of it, but they do happen to be part of a popular and important movement.
As much as the sane among us would all like to think we can protect those who produce things from those who want to steal them, supporting laws like ACTA and SOPA is probably not the way forward.
These laws will be outdated in minutes, as soon as one of our delightful Y-fronters happens upon a way to circumvent them.
The point that we seem to be missing is that it’s a change to the industry “as we know it”, which doesn’t necessarily mean a destruction of it altogether. When have we ever benefitted from keeping something perpetually “as we know it”? Without change and evolution, we would still be writing on slate, reading lithographs and listening to the crackling sound of an ageing gramophone. And we certainly wouldn’t have the internet.
There isn’t exactly a perfect solution at the moment. There is only the sense that, as piracy grows, the entertainment industry needs to evolve its business models to the point where the main revenue source is not so damagingly affected by free downloads and peer-to-peer transfers.
Piracy, or rather file-sharing, is going to continue, not because of any sense of anti-establishment sentiment, but purely because it is easy, convenient and cheap.
Certain of the “creatives” that Levine was so worried about are already coming to the industry’s rescue by developing software which appeals to the creatures of convenience, as well as the die-hard music and film lovers. Spotify and Netflix are steadily growing in subscribers, while more and more projects are funded through sites like Kickstarter, which allows consumers to put money in the pot for prospective projects that they see merit in.
The music file-sharing mechanisms, formerly things like MySpace, but currently SoundCloud and still famously YouTube, are allowing musicians to bypass the bureaucracy of record label politics and put out stuff on their own. Many acts are now releasing that would never have been spotted in previous years.
Interestingly, in the music world, the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) has actually recorded an 8% increase in digital revenues since 2011. This shows that the more readily available you make digital files, the more likely people will be to click and buy.
The best part of the spread of piracy has to be the renewed focus on live music. Gig culture is experiencing a delightful renaissance meaning that, contrary to Levine’s concerns, we won’t all be sitting at home ROFLing into our cornflakes. We’ll be out tossing our hair around and throwing some shapes.
So while the fat-cats in the record label world and the MCs in the blockbuster business might be short a few bob, the “creatives” are finding ways to use the evolution of the industry to their advantage.
Piracy isn’t a solution or a political right, it is just a by-product of the advancement of technology. Good or bad, it isn’t going to stop any time soon. But instead of leading to a creative demise, it is now in the hands of the creatives to discover new directions for the entertainment and software industries to go. It’s not so much survival of the fittest, but survival of the smartest.
Words: Natasha Bird
Featured Image: Clurr