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net.wars: Pirate Flags

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 13 August 2010


Wednesday's Future Human – The Piracy Panacea event missed out on a few topics, among them network neutrality, an issue I think underlies many net.wars debates: content control, privacy, security. The Google-Verizon proposals sparked much online discussion this week. I can only reiterate my belief that net neutrality should be seen as an anti-trust issue. A basic principle of anti-trust law (Standard Oil, the movie studios) is that content owners should not be allowed to own the means of distribution, and I think this readily applies to cable companies that own TV stations and telephone companies that are carriers for other people's voice services.

Wendy M Grossman

But the Future Human event was extraordinary enough without that. Imagine: more than 150 people squished into a hot, noisy pub, all passionately interested in…copyright! It's only a few years ago that entire intellectual property law school classes would fit inside a broom cupboard. The event's key question: does today's "piracy" point the way to future innovation?

The basis of that notion seemed to be that historically pirates have forced large imperial powers to change and weren't just criminals. The event's light-speed introduction whizzed through functionally democratic pirate communities and pirate radio, and a potted history of authorship from Shakespeare and Newton to Lady Gaga. There followed mock trials of a series of escalating copyright infringements in which it became clear that the audience was polarized and more or less evenly divided.

There followed our panel: me, theoretically representing the Open Rights Group; Graham Linehan, creator of Father Ted and The IT Crowd; Jamie King, writer and director of Steal This Film; and economist Thierry Rayna. Challenged, of course, by arguers from the audience, one of whom declined to give her affiliation on the grounds that she'd get lynched (I doubt this). Partway through the panel someone complained on Twitter that we weren't answering the question the event had promised to tackle: how can the creative industries build on file-sharing and social networks to create the business models of the future?

It seems worth trying to answer that now.

First, though, I think it's important to point out that I don't think there's much that's innovative about downloading a TV show or MP3. The people engaged in downloading unauthorized copies of mainstream video/audio, I think, are not doing anything particularly brave. The people on the front lines are the ones running search engines and services. These people are indeed innovators, and some of them are doing it at substantial personal risk. And they cannot, in general, get legal licenses from rights holders, a situation that could be easily changed by the rights holders.

Napster, which kicked the copyright wars into high gear and made digital downloads a mainstream distribution method, is now ten years ago. Yet rights holders are still trying to implement artificial scarcity (to replace real scarcity) and artificial geography (to replace real geography). The death of distance, as Economist writer Frances Cairncross called it in 1997, changes everything, and trying to pretend it doesn't is absurd. The download market has been created by everyone *but* the record companies, who should have benefited most. Social networks – including the much-demonized P2P networks – provide the greatest mechanism for word of mouth in the history of human culture. And, as we all know, word of mouth is the most successful marketing available, at least for entertainment.

It also seems obvious that P2P and social networks are a way for companies to gauge the audience better before investing huge sums. It was obvious from day one, for example, that despite early low official ratings and mixed reviews, Gossip Girl was a hit. Why? Because tens of thousands of people were downloading it the instant it came online after broadcast. Shouldn't production company accountants be all over this? Use these things as a testbed instead of having the fall pilots guessed on by a handful of the geniuses who commissioned Cavemen and the US version of Coupling and cancelled Better Off Ted. They could have a lot clearer picture of what kind of audience a show might find and how quickly.

Trying to kill P2P and other technologies just makes them respawn like the Hydra. The death of Napster (central server) begat Gnutella and eDonkey (central indexes), lawsuits against whose software developers begat the even more decentralized BitTorrent. When millions and tens of millions of people are flocking to a new technology rights holders should be there, too.

The real threat is always going to be artists taking their business into their own hands. For every Lady Gaga there are thousands of artists who, given some basic help can turn their work into the kind of living wage that allows them to pursue their art full-time and professionally. I would think there is a real business in providing these artists with services – folksingers, who've never had this kind of help, have produced their own recordings for decades, and having done it myself I can tell you it's not easy. This was the impulse behind the foundation of  CDBaby, and now of Jamie King's VoDo.

In the long run, things like this are the real game-changers.


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).