Digital piracy: Long John Silver and his Merry Men?
You all know the advertisement: You wouldn’t steal a car… you wouldn’t steal a mobile phone… you wouldn’t steal someone’s wallet…
And yet, recently when the people behind a torrenting site called The Pirate Bay were found guilty of copyright infringement and sentenced to pay millions and spend years in jail there was widespread outrage, even threat of Cyber War One (and not just because the site would no longer aid people in getting stuff for free).
Piracy is not just the people who lurk in the dark waters of P2P servers, sail the seas of digital data looking for (or hosting) torrents, and bravely enter movie theatres brandishing video cameras. Piracy is not just people who pirate because they can, and would rather get stuff for free than pay. Piracy is also a philosophical movement of the digital age *.
Down with big media
“it’s okay when you’re shafting corporate dogs” said my friend Toast with a big grin.
“My main issue is their view of everything. They’re stuck back in 1989 with their business models. Times are changing and they’re not changing with them. They’re not embracing the internet as a medium. Things are being charged for that other people do for free.”
Katie, a Computer Science PhD student added, “basically, the artist is the one with talent and what not – stuff you wanna pay for – the studios are just a bunch of losers making money off the guys with real talent”
Both are willing to support creators, and if they could do so without paying the exorbitant prices of the corporations, they would. But iTunes doesn’t function well here in South Africa and there is no local alternative. And so, if you don’t want to pay hundreds of rands (most of which goes to corporations) then piracy is your friend.
Haves and Have-nots
The problem isn’t exclusive to South Africa. People outside of Britain and the USA face challenges that the first-world-centric corporations don’t consider. Arem, a Zimbabwean who lives and works in South Africa has experience of this,
“When a CD costs the equivalent of seven or eight loaves of bread, and the majority of the population are living at or around the poverty line, you must expect people to make a plan.”
An additional challenge is when a strong media distribution presence is lacking
“Zimbabwe, for instance, you either have to pirate, or you have to import for yourself. Given the prescriptive media laws, the latter is difficult since every form of media is seized for inspection.”
The alternative to piracy often isn’t paying, it’s doing without. And doesn’t everyone have a right to information? It is this belief that sparked the creation of Sweden’s Pirate Party (Piratpartiet) – their fourth largest political party. They advocate freedom of information and the belief that now, in the digital age, we have so much knowledge and culture at our fingertips… and everyone should have access to it.
It’s all about the money
If media distribution changes to allow for such radical ideas as freedom of information, there is a belief that creators won’t create because they won’t be able to make a profit. It is this belief that has kept governments fighting tooth and claw to defend the corporations – what Lawrence Lessig calls the “totally failed war”:
“for ten years we have been waging this war, artists have gotten no more money, businesses have not gotten any more profit and our kids have been turned into criminals”
However, there are a few alternatives to media distribution as we have always known it to be that do allow creators to make money:
- Media is provided for free and people pay for novelty (merchandise, experience, collectors items)
- Media distribution has some restriction, but not enough to hinder creativity (creative commons)
- The middleman is removed (we pay the artist directly)
I will address these alternatives in greater detail in the next few blogs.
*A 2002 study called The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution” claimed that while people have always copied, it was easier to control when the objects in question where physical. Now, with the internet, the objects have become digital and piracy has become more widespread.