17 May 2008
Talking like a pirate
by Matt Mason
One couldn’t wish for a more colourful circus of corporate stupidity and vindictiveness than the public actions of the major record labels over the past decade. They have secretly installed spyware on people’s computers and sued American college students; last month, one label filed a US court claim that throwing their promotional CDs in the bin constituted a violation of copyright. At the same time, they have been demanding a tax on iPods, the proceeds from which would flow directly into their pockets, and firing the A&R staff upon whom their future depends. None of this, of course, is meant to protect the interests of musicians, only of their executive leeches.
It is a farcical ongoing case study in how not to respond to what former pirate-radio DJ Matt Mason calls “the pirate’s dilemma”. Despite some special pleading in the introduction, he really means “the pirate dilemma”: the pirates themselves are not mulling much over ethical quandaries, but they are forcing everyone else to figure out how to live with them. Much of the book is focused on how large companies ought to respond to the fleet-footed challenge of copyists, mash-uppers and other rebels against “intellectual property”. What, for example, did Nike do when a Japanese DJ called Nigo started ripping off its famous Air Force One trainer design and selling versions in crazy new materials and colours at a high-fashion premium? It didn’t sue; instead, it started making similar far-out designs itself, and then invested in Nigo’s company.
Mason offers this reassuring take-home message for corporations: that piracy often identifies gaps in the market, or new spaces that the market could expand to fill. Inspirational stories abound. Hollywood was founded by film-makers fleeing Edison’s burdensome patents on cinema equipment in New York; American cable TV companies initially “refused to pay the networks for broadcasting their content”; the BBC’s Radio 1 was inaugurated as a “pirate copy” of the pirate station Radio London, to try to stamp out once and for all the Jolly Rogers of the airwaves.
So far, so comfy. But Mason has a sly habit of suddenly wrenching the argument into a new context, arguing at one point, for instance, that the production of cheap generic anti-HIV drugs in India, fought bitterly by big pharma, is another form of contemporary (and heroic) “piracy”, pointing up a way in which current laws and regulations are “broken”. Later on, there is even an abrupt segue from hip-hop to the Post-Autistic Economics movement (which argues that neoclassical or “mainstream” economics is delusionary): cheeky, but it works.
The best parts of the book, meanwhile, take the leisure to build vivid, detailed histories of countercultures that the author loves, tracing hip-hop, for example, back to the birth of MCing thanks to a studio oversight in Jamaica in 1967. There is a wonderful proof that disco was invented by a nun, Sister Alicia Donohoe, at an orphanage in the 1940s – she created a “party room” for the children equipped with a fridge, record player and multicoloured balloons. Subliminal memories of that space inspired a former resident, David Mancuso, to give his series of famous disco parties at the Loft in 1970s New York. There is also a history of graffiti as the civic reclaiming of public space, which includes the remarkable fact that, during the great subway “cleanup” of the 1980s, many painted carriages were just dumped in the ocean. Mason’s prose style is a lovely, swaggering mash-up of the analytical and the street. I was happy to be told, of one hip-hop dandy, that his “fashion game was mighty healthy”.
There is, though, a tension running through Mason’s arguments, as to whether we should applaud those he calls “pirates” for their creative anti-corporate rebellion, or admire them insofar as they subsequently become corporate successes themselves. Here is a graffiti tagger who builds a T-shirt empire; and here is a soft-drinks company that makes a near-subliminal but highly successful marketing deal with 50 Cent. Is this really comparable to the spirit of anarchic creativity he celebrates? When big sportswear companies try “street advertising” through graffiti, he evidently disapproves. This tension is not resolved, but is in the end overtly framed in the following superbly wry sentence: “Hip-hop mastered the art of the sustainable sellout through the notion of keeping it real.”
Mason’s cultural view, meanwhile, remains impressively wide-angle. He also discusses authoritatively other aspects of “remix culture”, such as the “modding” scene in videogames (where gamers build their own new environments and rule-sets from the open code provided); or the “phantom edit” of George Lucas’s first new Star Wars film, in which fans removed all possible trace of the appalling Jar Jar Binks. He is consistently thoughtful, offering rich provocations about the British wave of “happy slapping”, or a future in which self-replicating 3D printers become possible. In comparison with most other contemporary books that seek to educate corporate culture about what the kids are doing, Mason exudes the authority, and sheer joyful fascination, of someone who is saturated in what he talks about.
It is possible, though, that two concepts of “piracy” are being conflated. Rule-breaking creativity that opens up new cultural and economic possibilities is one thing; but that’s not the same “piracy” as just downloading for free the music you used to pay for. The vast majority of MP3 “sharers” are not doing anything to creatively extend the material, as most of Mason’s heroic “pirates” do. You can’t actually remix a commercially produced track unless the artist deliberately gives out the original “stems” – separate tracks of drums, bass, vocals and so on. This is what Radiohead did last month with their song “Nude” for a remix competition – but in a deliciously cynical twist, anyone who wanted the stems had to pay for them as five separate “songs” on iTunes. In return for the four quid investment, remixers got to upload their versions to Radiohead’s website – and, er, that’s it. (By contrast, Nine Inch Nails were already giving away remixable stems for free a couple of years ago.)
Near the bottom of all this lies one very simple question. If the only answer to widespread piracy, as Mason argues, is to “compete like a pirate” yourself, how will the actual producers of “content” get paid in the future? This question recently generated a large public discussion on my website, where, as an experiment in the economics of free distribution with voluntary donations, I had given away an electronic version of one of my own books. It was downloaded by 30,000 people, of whom 17 contributed to the “tip jar”. Needless to say, I’m not giving up the day job.
The question comes up in Mason’s book, but you’ll miss it if you blink. “Artists not getting paid for their work is a problem,” he says. Moving swiftly on: “But the fact remains that file-sharing sites such as Napster make an abundance of music available that we otherwise would not have access to.” That’s true, but on its own it’s not a persuasive argument. Robbing a bank would make an abundance of money available to me that I otherwise would not have access to. I may firmly believe that this would be an excellent thing for everyone, but I’d have to make a second argument to show why: maybe I would promise to give the money to the poor, or become a discerning patron of struggling nerdcore musicians, or just buy myself lots of gadgets and nice meals, since at least I would be reinvesting the cash in the economy in a more efficient manner than banks have recently shown themselves able to do.
So it’s worth noticing, finally, that Mason is not distributing his own ideas “pirate”-fashion, which presumably would mean slapping this text up for free on an internet wiki to which anyone could contribute edits and additions. Instead, he has published it as an old-fashioned book with a copyright notice and assertion of “moral right”, which makes a nice calling card for the speaking engagements detailed on his blog. The publishing industry might soon face the same problems as the music industry currently does; but until then, cash in while you can.