Independent media needs you. Join the Tyee.


Tyee Books

Tories vs. 'Punk Capitalists'

Why copyright piracy is just the new way of doing business.

By Peter Tupper 17 Jun 2008 |

Peter Tupper is a widely published Vancouver writer with a focus on media and technology. Read more Tyee stories by Peter Tupper.

image atom
'Pirate's Dilemma' author Matt Mason.
  • The Pirate's Dilemma
  • Matt Mason
  • Free Press (2008)

"With pirates, it's never just for the money, is it?" -- Videodrome (1983), written and directed by David Cronenberg

Today, being pirated is less of a worry than not being pirated. If nobody thinks enough of your album or movie to seed it on BitTorrent so it can be downloaded for free, odds are nobody thinks enough of it to buy it in a store either.

Last year, peer-to-peer file sharing accounted for 74 per cent of all German Internet traffic, according to German network traffic firm Ipoque. One of the hottest technologies right now is rapid replication, desktop factories that one day might make creating a new pair of sneakers as easy as downloading a music track. All of this hints at a future in which anything can be pirated, leaving a lot of people in business wondering what to do: watch your business walk out the door because you didn't do enough, or clamp down on your property and alienate your customers in the process? That's the Pirate's Dilemma.

An example of the latter strategy is Bill C-61, an act to amend the Copyright Act, introduced by Minister of Industry Jim Prentice on Thursday. It's a bill that has little regard for freedom of expression, fair use rights, the public domain, consulting stakeholders or even enforceability, and much regard for keeping U.S. movie companies happy. According to columnist Michael Geist, C-61 could make ripping a DVD you own to your iPod a criminal offense. A librarian could break the law if she scans and sends an article to somebody who keeps it for more than five days. Region-free DVD players could be illegal. People backing up or otherwise format-shifting their movies and music could become pirates.

The business of stealing media

If you want a discussion of the political, ethical or legal aspects of piracy, Matt Mason's The Pirate's Dilemma isn't the book for you. (Try Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture or Darren Wershler-Henry's free as in speech and beer for that.) Mason's book is classified as "business," a guide to the new pirate waters for the people who want to make money.

The Pirate's Dilemma is really about the evolution of pirate media subcultures, their attendant economies and their relationship to the mainstream culture and economy. Mason calls this "punk capitalism," a phrase also used by Bono to describe the Product Red campaign to fight AIDS in Africa. (It can also describe sweatshops and payday loan companies.) Its do-it-yourself attitude plus low barriers to entry: punk rock's three guitar chords and a spiky haircut in the 1970s, hip-hop's two turntables and a microphone in the 1980s, the Internet's web server and free software.

Time and again, Mason tells the tale of pirates who broke all the rules, came out of nowhere and made it big (and rich): the very first radio broadcasters, the nun who unwittingly invented the dance club, the street kids who created the global hip-hop culture, the hackers who invented the personal computer. It's the classic American "little guy with a dream makes good" success story.

Yet, the end result of Mason's examples is hip-yet-superficial brands like VICE magazine and American Apparel, or 70-year-old rock stars creaking through one more reunion tour, or companies like Disney that made movies based on public domain fairy tales, yet ruthlessly control their own intellectual property. A particularly galling example is when Mason compares TAKI183, a legendary graffiti tagger who put his mark on a U.S. secret service car in 1971 at great personal risk and for no material gain, to Marc Ecko's viral video hoax of tagging Air Force One that ultimately did nothing but sell a lot of designer t-shirts.

Peter Pan or Captain Hook?

Likewise, Mason badly misrepresents the history of Microsoft and Apple, portraying the former as oppressive hoarders and the latter as freedom loving pirates who stayed true to the open source hacker culture. Instead, Apple today is deeply hostile towards piracy, doing its best to control every aspect of the user's hardware, software and content. (Microsoft would love to do the same, if it could.)

Time and again, Mason's examples show Peter Pan turning into Captain Hook.

The true descendants of the people who built the first personal computers and freely shared programming code in the 1970s are the ones in the open source movement, working away at ever-improving operating systems and applications and giving it away for free. The open source developers and other examples of non-commercial "pirate" cultures, like the movement to produce cheaper versions of medicines for developing countries, gets only a fraction of the page count devoted to strike-it-rich, yay-free-market stories.

Mason spends a chapter pondering the rise and fall of pirate subcultures, and one suspects that this book was originally about the life cycle of scenes and cliques before it was refocused. Some subcultures go legit and/or sell out to the mainstream, with rock songs about heroin repurposed as jingles for cruise lines and mortgages. Some are stillborn from too little or too much monetization, like the short-lived UK "grime" scene. Some are legislated to death. A few defy assimilation by being too repulsive, like the UK's "happy slap" culture of randomly assaulting people to make YouTube videos. Some attempt uneasy accommodations with the mainstream, trying to attract big-money interest while remaining true to their roots, like hip-hop and open source.

Mason has a knack for finding interesting historical connections and anecdotes, but he uses them to tell the same "pirates make good" narrative repeatedly. It's as if he wants to reassure his business book readers that they can be cool outlaws and still make pots of money. As a result, his book is readable but not terribly deep, and biased in favor of commercial interests that may be the biggest threat to the creative cultures it describes. The mainstream needs pirate cultures for their creativity and originality, but runs the risk of overfishing the ocean, by suctioning out the culture's money and diluting the brand's message. Mason may have intended this book to help prevent the relationship between the two from becoming exploitative.

Can pirates have a conscience?

The final chapter lays out Mason's thesis as a variation of the prisoner's dilemma: the businesses that unclench and don't try too hard to control how their products are used and distributed, that tolerate and even condone a certain amount of piracy, will collectively benefit. It's a sound idea, and as of mid-2008, it appears that the market is adopting the new philosophy. The major music labels now sell downloads of large portions of their catalogs without anti-piracy measures. Companies sell laptops with open source operating systems. Even the CBC is experimenting with distributing video programming via peer-to-peer file sharing. Hopefully, the motion picture industry will soon figure out what the music industry now understands: that the treatment for piracy, such as Bill C-61, is worse than the disease.

But what Mason's thesis leaves out are the morality and ethics of piracy. The guy working on an open source operating system has a completely different motive and ultimate goal from the guy selling bootleg DVDs on a street corner. Some pirates are motivated by concern for freedom of expression and the public commons. Some just like to give the finger to the powerful and the comfortable. Some want to make a living the only way they can. And some dream of selling out and joining the elite. Piracy is not the opposite of market capitalism; it is the fringe, where you find the greatest generosity and the most craven exploitation.

Pirates can't be easily divided into good and bad, but serious discussion of the ethical dimension is what's missing in Mason's book. The subcultures that Mason studies are also sub-economies (though not necessarily in terms of cash), and they have a potential to resist the market capitalism that's been encroaching on all of society. The open source programmer and the medicine bootlegger are the pirate heroes of the moment, not the rapper with his own brand of flavored water, whom Mason praises as "authentic."