Piracy and the digital revolution

26 March 2009
Red Pepper
Are teenagers freely swapping music, films and other files over the internet undermining corporate control of entertainment and creating a revolutionary culture of sharing and universal access to knowledge? asks Nick Buxton

There isn’t an eye patch or hook in sight, but three young computer geeks and a businessman have recently made piracy very sexy in Sweden.

Are teenagers freely swapping music, films and other files over the internet undermining corporate control of entertainment and creating a revolutionary culture of sharing and universal access to knowledge? asks Nick Buxton

There isn’t an eye patch or hook in sight, but three young computer geeks and a businessman have recently made piracy very sexy in Sweden. The four founders of a popular file-sharing service called Pirate Bay, become instant underdog cyber-heroes as they took the stand in court in February 2009 against US media giants such as Sony and Warner Brothers. The four potentially face up to two years in prison and fines of up to $180,000 dollars if they are found guilty of infringement of copyright laws.

Cross and bone flags flutter outside the court, every utterance is blogged and twittered and new members are flooding to a Pirate political party that has overtaken the Green Party in terms of members. The contentious file-sharing website – www.piratebay.org – continues to taunt the music industry reps with insults and the spectre of lost profits as an estimated 22 million users swap files from U2’s latest album to Oscar-winning films like Slum Dog Millionaire.

The music and film industry is keen to change the image of the Pirate Bay from one of cyber freedom fighters to one of businessmen (albeit ones with unusual facial hair) profiting at the expense of artists. Monique Wadsted, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) representative in Sweden calls it simply theft: “It’s not a political trial or shutting down a people’s library or one that wants to prohibit file sharing as a technique. It’s a trial regarding four individuals that have conducted a big commercial business, making money out of others by file sharing works – copy protected works, movies and hit music, popular computer games, etc.”

Former IT entrepreneur and founder of the Pirate Party, Rickard Falkvinge sees it differently: “The problem is that politicians have chosen not to listen to young people. We have this new technology and culture of file sharing, but the politicians have chosen to criminalise us. The music industry is doing everything to prevent the spread of culture. In Sweden we are putting a flag in the ground and uniting to put an end to their lobbying.”

Students for free culture

Sweden isn’t the only place where flags are being put in the ground. A few months previously and across the globe, the Students for Free Culture held their first national meeting in December 2008 in Berkeley. They chose to hold the meeting at the US university, which became renowned for the launch of Free Speech movement and a subsequent wave of activism in the 1960s.

Students for Free Culture was started by two students in Pennsylvania who received legal threats in 2003 from an electronic voting manufacturer Diebold for publishing embarrassing internal company emails that revealed serious technical flaws in their voting systems. These machines were used in the controversial elections in Florida in 2000.

Rather than backing down, the students organised to get the emails published on even more websites and counter-sued the company for abuse of copyright law. Political and media attention forced Diebold to announce it would no longer try and stop distribution of the memos. The students hope to launch a movement that has similar impact to the Free Speech Movement.

“Like the Free Speech movement, we are fighting against the top-down control of speech and are motivated by beliefs about basic rights. The differences are in our ability to organize electronically- our Mario Savio [one of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement] is more likely to inspire with a blog post than with a speech,” says Berkeley student Alex Kozak, one of the organisers.

The national meeting at Berkeley (titled an “unconference”) committed itself to fight for open access to university research, the use of free and open software within universities, and free licensing of any university patents related to health or software. It also promised to continue to pick fights with any attempts to control the open nature of the Internet and to take head on corporations who try to quash artistic creativity and free speech with lawsuits. (See http://barbieinablender.org/!)

Mayo Fuster Morell, a Catalan activist and researcher on digital issues, believes that “the movement has a high level of commitment and clear ideas. It is not possible to reverse what they want to do. The goal of universal access to knowledge is hugely motivating and linked with other social movements will have a huge impact.”

Internet culture

Throughout the world, the experience of “growing up digital,” as technology writer Don Tapscott has called it, has created a pattern of behaviour and cooperation that, largely unconsciously, undermines corporate control of culture, information and ideas.

“It is part of the identity of my generation to create and share content on large social networks, organise events online, and share with each other our favourite music and movies, sometimes legally and sometimes not,” says Alex. “This behaviour has lead to an unconscious dedication to the culture of sharing.”

Sharing albums via the Internet or in person, editing music and TV footage for Youtube videos or mixing tracks to produce their own music is part of the everyday experience of most teenagers. The Internet has also facilitated the emergence of communities who have the tools to collaborate across borders and produce software, music and films that previously could only be done by resource-rich corporations. This has led to a burgeoning movement of free software and open source technicians, independent media activists and creative artists and writers who openly and freely share their works.

Certainly not all elements of this burgeoning movement are political or progressive. Libertarian attitudes are just as likely (perhaps more likely) to be found on the Right than the Left. Nevertheless, it is clear that the experience of growing up digital is starting to politicise young people who find pride in the collaborative models that they are developing and are determined to defend it where it is threatened.

Corporate backlash

Inadvertently, corporations are supporting this politicisation by their desperate attempts to limit the culture of sharing. In addition to its frequent actions to close down file-sharing sites such as Pirate Bay (and famously before that Napster), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in the last five years has sued more than 30,000 randomly selected North American families for music file sharing.

And these legal actions are likely to continue. As corporations’ possibilities for increasing profit diminish at a time of recession and against a systemic capitalist tendency for overproduction, patents are one of the few mechanisms that insulate companies from competition and keep prices for branded products (such as music albums or Microsoft software) high.

The entertainment and cultural industry is one of the largest and most profitable industry in the developed world, especially in the US and Japan. Four companies control 70% of the world’s music market. Copyright industries in the US have typically outperformed other industries, contributing as much as 23.78% of overall economic growth in 2007. These corporations usually don’t produce the content and tend not to employ creative producers directly, but rather identify and invest in a small number of artists who can create the most value. They concentrate on licensing and maintaining the maximum length of control of the intellectual property and exercising these rights in as many arenas as possible (film, TV, DVDs, merchandise).

Corporations are not willing to let go of this control easily. Apart from legal threats, companies benefit from the largely corporate control of access to the Internet and via agreements with popular websites like Youtube and Google. In January 2009, they pressurised the first Internet Service Provider, Eircom in Ireland to block access to all file-sharing content and undoubtedly hope to pressure other ISPs to do the same.

They have backed this up with pressure to change the law in many countries. Where they don’t have sufficient influence on politicians domestically, they have used the arsenal of regional free trade agreements and even blunt diplomatic threats to impose stricter Intellectual Property regimes and to target file-sharing sites. The first attempt to close down Pirate Bay in 2006, in which Swedish police confiscated servers, took place after threats from the US embassy against the Swedish government. Mark Getty, chairman of Getty Images, one of the largest owners of copyrighted materials famously said: “Intellectual Property is the Oil of the 21st Century.” Digital activists took this to mean that corporations and countries, like the US and Britain, would also be willing to go to war to protect and control it.

Losing control

But despite their best efforts, there is a sense that the corporations this time will have an impossible task in trying to put free culture back into a safe pre-digital box. Felix Stalder, media researcher at Zurich University says: “I think the war on piracy is failing for social reasons. People like to communicate, to share things, to transform things and technology makes it so easy that there is no way of stopping it.”

Pirate Party’s Richard Falkvinge compares the struggle to the attempts by the Church to control information and culture in the Middle Ages: “We are seeing the same struggle today. Fifteen years ago we had one source communicating to the many, like a newspaper or TV station. Today however with the internet, millions of people are exchanging culture and information on the Internet, so there is no way of controlling this information."

Pirate Bay’s founders have said that regardless of the trial’s outcome that Pirate Bay will continue to exist as it is now set up on distributed servers across the world so that even the owners don’t know where they are. Getty Images was notably sold in 2008 after its stock prices plunged with the rapid rise of cheaper and open-access images on the web. In January 2009, Apple announced it would remove anti-copying restrictions (known as Digital Rights Management) on all of the songs in its popular iTunes Store.

Most significant, perhaps, are the strong alternatives and new models of knowledge sharing that are emerging as cracks appear in the weakening structure of Intellectual Property. In the digital world, Free and Open Source software, such as the Firefox browser and Open Office are taking off as alternatives to Microsoft. The collaborative and free-to-use internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia has emerged as the fourth most popular website on the Internet (after Google, Yahoo and MSN). Increasing number of projects are now carried out collectively and collaboratively across the Internet with limited hierarchical direction and without proprietorial control of the end product.

In the entertainment sphere, bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have shown that bypassing corporate media companies by allowing people to pay what they want to download an album can still ensure artists get rewarded for their creative work. Creativity shows no signs of being squashed by the decline in profits of companies like Sony music: 130 million works by writers, photographers, and film producers have been assigned with Creative Commons licences, designed to make it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others.

German activist Sebastian Lütgert from Pirate Cinema believes that: “What we are witnessing is the coming of producers rather than consumers, and that suggests a new economic model for society.” In practical terms, San Francisco University researcher Dorothy Kidd notes that “the open source software movement offers a good model for how decentralised network structures can work. It is an example that contradicts the ideology that says that public institutions are not flexible and dynamic enough to work.” She believes that these practices need to be incorporated into social movements’ practices and their articulation of alternatives.

There will be challenges in doing this – and it is important not to over-romanticise movements like the Free and Open Source Software movements. Jeff Juris, an analyst on new media technologies and social movements says: “Open source movements can still replicate hierarchies seen in traditional systems. This time the divisions are not just around the usual issues of power and money, but also based on a divide between “tecchies” and activists.” Others note that open source models and corporate power are not mutually exclusive, citing the prominent role of IT company SUNS in projects like the Firefox browser. Collaborative models have the potential to flatten structures of hierarchy and weaken corporate power but this still requires a firm political commitment from the participants.

In an interview by digital magazine Wired with one of Pirate Bay’s collaborators, Pete (surname undisclosed) tells the reporter: “It's not the problem of the pirates to figure out how to compensate artists or encourage invention away from the current intellectual property system... Our job is just to tear down the flawed system that exists, to force the hand of society to make something better.”

Therein lies the challenge for social movements and activists to take the redefinition of piracy a stage further – to turn the image of a pirate from an eye-patched destroyer to one of a digitally-inspired pioneer determined to use creativity to build new collaborative and just economic and social models of living.

This article is based on conversations, papers and webpage links pulled together by participants of the Networked Politics and Technology seminar held at Berkeley University, 5-6 December 2008.
Networked Politics Conference in Berkeley

Coverage of the trial by Wired Magazine - expected to deliver verdict on 17 April

Steal this film - good introduction to the issue of piracy

About the authors

Nick Buxton

Nick Buxton is a communications consultant, working on media, publications and online communications for TNI. He has been based in California since September 2008 and prior to that lived in Bolivia for four years, working as writer/web editor at Fundación Solón, a Bolivian organisation working on issues of trade, water, culture and historical memory. His publications include “Civil society and debt cancellation” in Civil society and human rights (Routledge, 2004) and “Politics of debt” in Dignity and Defiance: Bolivia’s challenge to globalisation (University of California Press/Merlin Press UK, January 2009).