The Digital Jolly Roger

The battle between digital piracy and content owners has been going on for many years, with pirates becoming more and more bold in flouting the law (see The Pirate Bay’s general PR campaign) while content owners exert more and more pressure on governments to alter laws to protect their copyright. Neither side seems to have faith that it is possible to negotiate with the “other” side, and so they continue circling each other and trying to gain advantage with the resources they have; skill and adaptability in the case of the pirates, and scads of money in the case of the record companies.

As for the “citizens” in the middle, given their choice of buying or stealing content, I think it mostly comes down to convenience. Most people I know who don’t steal content don’t because they find the technology required to do it (primarily torrents) too intimidating to master. They’ll complain about the selection on Netflix rather than download the movies they want to see because Netflix has an element of pre-selection, more akin to watching television; you don’t have to know in advance what you want to watch out of the millions and millions of options, you can just cycle through categories until you see something you might maybe be in the mood for.

As Steinmetz and Tunnell note, “participants simultaneously engaged in activity which undermines capitalist enterprise (piracy) and has a distinct communal quality (as demonstrated by the ‘‘Sharing is Caring’’ ethos) while also supporting the existence of the capitalist political economy.” This is because wanting to hear new music without paying for it is not, for most, a revolutionary gesture. If it expresses disastisfaction with capitalism, it’s only the immediate sense of not wanting to spend money. I think we in general accept capitalism because no alternative seems to have gone well enough elsewhere to be preferable; we steal music because there seem to be so few consequences for doing so. It’s a pleasure we get from outside of capitalism, but it does not make most of us question capitalism itself.

Condry, quoting Lessig, says downloading can serve four purposes:

“(a) to replace purchasing, (b) to sample then purchase, (c) to access otherwise unavailable content, and (d)
to access content that is not copyrighted.”

In my experience, a, c and d for most consumers amount to the same thing. We don’t want to buy, our not buying makes music inaccessible except through piracy and copyright is meaningless to us except insofar as it can be enforced. I don’t think many people download an album illegally and then buy it on iTunes afterward; that’s paying money for something we already have, which few would bother to do. Look at the sales of CDs to see how much b) is still a big part of people’s consumption habits. Whether someone buys on iTunes or steals through The Pirate Bay has more to do with which platform is more comfortable for them to use, and which has what they want to hear. But maybe I’m a pessimist.

Condry, Ian. (2004). Cultures of Music Piracy: An Ethnographic Comparison of the US and JapanInternational Journal of Cultural Studies. 7 (3), pg. 343-363
Steinmetz, K., K. Tunnell (2013). Under the Pixelated Jolly Roger: A Study of On-Line PiratesDeviant Behavior. 34 (1), pg. 53-67
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2 thoughts on “The Digital Jolly Roger

  1. It is very interesting post. Indeed, copyright issues have been for a long time, actually it is more like money issues. We have tones of reasons that tell why we download for share files online rather than buy the stuff. In my opinion, all reasons are excuses. In fact, we do not want to spend money on these stuff, which are not worthy; for example, we can get songs online, so why we purchase it on Itunes, unless we really want to keep a hardcopy of an album.

  2. Intriguing. Your mentioning of the failure to “negotiate” certainly is to blame for the current war waging between producers and law enforcers; each side will likely procure more obscure and devious ways to “outsmart” the other. It is seemingly pessimistic, but I prefer the term “realistic”. What else can we do but face the stark reality of a society bound in capitalism; as you said, our acceptance of the system is a result of trial and error, and seems to function well enough due to the fact that we don’t know anything different. Since we are predominantly consumers (sometimes producers, on a small scale), I suppose we cannot truly understand the advantages and disadvantages of piracy laws, we can only reap the benefits. Good post.

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