Citing TF’s decade of experience covering the piracy battles, Andy repeats a familiar narrative that because piracy will never stop, and because pirates will continue to innovate, the major rights holders will never stop wanting more “draconian” copyright laws—laws that will threaten internet freedom but will not mitigate piracy. He says that history teaches us these laws will fail in their purpose but will continue to fuel “justifiable” outrage among users, making enemies of prospective consumers for creative works. “No one wants a minefield of copyright law. No one wants a restricted Internet. No one wants extended liability for innovators, service providers, or the public. But this is what we’ll get if this problem isn’t solved soon. Something drastic needs to happen, but who will be brave enough to admit it, let alone do something about it?” he writes.
But brave enough to do what about what exactly? Andy describes a landscape in which pirate technology is becoming more sophisticated and more accessible—even while he credits piracy with fostering affordable, legal services like Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, etc. Aside from being historically inaccurate—because these streaming platforms were not a response to piracy—Andy doesn’t seem to notice that there is no solution to the problem he describes. Because the crux of what he’s saying leads one to the conclusion that no matter how affordable and accessible a vast library of works becomes, people will still pirate—a lot. So, the real title of his post should be No Amount of Free Content Will Ever Be Enough For Some Consumers.
The major flaw with the post is that it’s predicated on a longstanding bit of revisionist history written by the “file-sharing community,” which continues to repeat the campfire legend that piracy was a market response to the excesses and greed of Big Media. But although the 1990s did reveal plenty that was wrong with major media corporations, I’m calling bullshit on the post hoc assertion that this was a significant factor in the adoption of Napster beginning in 1999. People used Napster because it was cool and free, not because there was a collective sense of rebellion against corporate producers of music and movies.
I’m from the 80s. We bought a lot of music on vinyl and CD, and I don’t remember any of my peers feeling particularly ripped off by the industry—at least not any more than young people feel ripped off by everything. But if Napster had been introduced while we were in college, I have every confidence we would have been all over it. A technology that turns a personal computer into a free jukebox? Hell yes a bunch of teens and young adults are going to think it’s the coolest thing ever invented. And it will only be after some ethical doubt about stealing music creeps into someone’s consciousness that the rationalizations will follow—including the self-affirming lie that we’re only stealing from greedy corporations and not the artists. Right after a new band called the Red Hot Chili Peppers played our dining hall, we’d have been “Napstering” their songs and devising elaborately lame explanations for why “sharing” their music was better than buying it.
The false narrative that piracy represented a socially conscious response to corporatism morphed into the mantra per ad nauseaum that any measure proposed to mitigate piracy will always be the antithesis of “internet freedom.” The underlying hypocrisy of this point of view is that it willfully ignores the fact that far from being an anti-corporatist “movement,” piracy merely enriched two different categories of corporatists—one, a group of outright thieves; the other, stakeholders in giant internet platforms. As musician/activist David Lowery wrote in 2012, the new boss (Google, Spotify, etc.) is worse than the old boss (traditional labels, studios, etc.); and if Andy and the “file-sharing community” want to take credit for something, they can take credit for that.
Ultimately, though, Andy fails to recognize that as long as any rule of law—from copyright enforcement to a right-to-be-forgotten to an anti-trafficking provision—is described as anathema to “internet freedom,” there is no conversation to be had. At least not with anyone who thinks as he does. Because the logic he presents is that these harms are the price we pay for “freedom,” which is some ultra-libertarian, techno-centric nonsense long overdue for tossing into the Failed Ideas bin. 2017 demonstrated for many (though probably not enough) that the wildwestness of the internet isn’t exactly healthy for democracy—that just like democracy in physical space, freedom is actually sustained by certain boundaries.
Meanwhile, on a purely practical note—one I’ve alluded to the past—who are all these leisure-class consumers with so much time on their hands that they need to pirate content? Just for filmed-entertainment, I can think of at least a half-dozen new titles that I haven’t had time to watch yet on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu; and by the time I get to those, there will be more material released. The market is growing very rapidly, with the new streaming platforms developing some of the best new work ever made. But we can assume that piracy is also a greater threat to the streaming-only platforms than it is to traditional producers with other avenues of distribution. Note that Netflix and Amazon top the list of plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed January 10th against the makers of Dragon Box—the latest in sophisticated piracy devices to enter the market.
More about Dragon Box in a future post; but for now, I can’t help but think that editorials like this one from Andy are sounding a little out of touch—a bit “clinging to old models” if you will. Piracy itself may not be on the wane, but the rationales used to justify it sound weaker than ever in context to the changing media market and in context to some of the hard realities of what many call “internet freedom.” So, to the extent Andy’s post is a call to action, whatever action he imagines cannot proceed based on a history that never really happened. It’s time to put away the childish thing that says piracy = freedom.
Photo by cienpies.