Piracy is Looting — And That’s OK

August 29, 2011

If you support piracy, you should support looting.

I say this as a supporter of piracy, one trying to come to a consistent position on property as a whole. Plenty of people defend piracy, plenty more pirate secretly, and usually they will have an excuse, like “Pirates buy more music” or “I’m going to the show, so I’m supporting the artist” or “I don’t have money, so the company wouldn’t have gotten me to pay anyway.” They draw boundaries between the good or neutral piracy that they practice, and the bad piracy and theft that others practice. Instead of creating a preserve where the things that I and my friends do is ok, I’m more interested in expanding categories so we can see how what we do is aligned with what others do too.

So what is piracy? It is the deliberate violation of the current system property rights. Our system states that corporations can buy, sell, and own the exclusive right to copy music recordings, films, and books. Anyone else who does so is a criminal. Even though many people possess the means to easily copy and distribute intellectual property, they aren’t allowed. So what happens? We do it anyway. We torrent, we join password-protected communities, we Google music blogs, we upload to YouTube under disguised names, we rip and burn, we violate the laws of property willingly, continuously. We do this because we can. Because it’s easy. Because we know the media companies are greedy exploitative bastards. And because many of us don’t have the disposable income to blow indiscriminately on records, movie tickets, DVDs, and books.

And pay is indeed an important, if neglected, component of piracy. As the SSRC report “Media Piracy in Emerging Economies” states,

Media piracy has been called “a global scourge,” “an international plague,” and “nirvana for criminals,”1 but it is probably better described as a global pricing problem. High prices for media goods, low incomes, and cheap digital technologies are the main ingredients of global media piracy. If piracy is ubiquitous in most parts of the world, it is because these conditions are ubiquitous. Relative to local incomes in Brazil, Russia, or South Africa, the price of a CD, DVD, or copy of Microsoft Office is five to ten times higher than in the United States or Europe. Licit media goods are luxury items in most parts of the world, and licit media markets are correspondingly tiny.

It’s piracy or nothing. Or to appropriate someone else’s words, Share or Die.

So what about looting? Looting is the widespread theft of goods on a mass scale. Looters violate property laws, but many people, including pro-piracy people, will tell you it’s different, that taking a pair of sneakers isn’t the same as downloading an mp3. That seems true on the face of it, but it relies on some faulty claims.

First of all, shoes cannot be shared the way I share an mp3 — it benefits only the person who possesses it at the time. In economic jargon, shoes are “rivalrous.” Now, while it may be true in a limited metaphysical sense that shoes are rivalrous, in the context of the actual world (from which all analysis should proceed), we know that vast quantities of shoes are produced. In fact, if you had $100 to spend, you could go to the store right now and pick out one pair of shoes among many. Very few, if any, readers reading this right now face an actual scarcity of shoes available for purchase. However, we might not be able to afford shoes at any given time. I myself have had to put off replacing worn-out shoes until I could amass enough money to get new ones. I knew that once I had the money, I would have no trouble buying the shoes. Even if other people bought shoes, it wouldn’t prevent me from getting the exact same, or a nearly identical, type of shoe. So this kind of overproduction of mass-produced goods, combined with the widespread inability for many people to pay for these goods, renders the point about rivalrous goods moot.

Now to get that shoe for free, to steal it, would require committing a crime that seems very different from downloading an mp3. In the eyes of the law, in both cases you have violated someone else’s private property rights. But stealing a pair of shoes requires a different kind of physical activity to pull off. Illegally downloading an mp3 just means I sit behind a computer and type, the same way I check my email or do my taxes. I could do it in a cafe without disturbing a single person’s enjoyment of their latte. But looting will probably entail damaging some property — broken locks, smashed windows, and the like. Some people will find this a tad impolite. They think someone who entertains thoughts of violating property laws — laws governing physical property, they have no problem burning a CD for a friend — morally flawed. It creates a mess. In fact, Rudy Giuliani gentrified New York City using the belief that messes were worse than other types of crimes. People who think this way would prefer that you and I walk around unshod rather than make a mess. In fact, as long as you don’t make a mess, they don’t really care about whether you have shoes, food, healthcare, or anything else you need to survive. That, in my book, is some fucked up priorities, revealing, for all their peaceful coffee-sipping, a profound flaw in moral thinking.

So looting says the same thing that piracy says: we can take it and, by coordinating masses of others, we will. If we could torrent clothes and food using Starbucks WiFi, we would, but until then, we can loot from the vast stores of stuff that’s already been produced. Either way, we damage the industries we take from. And that is good, because these industries are terrible, greedy, inhuman industries that exploit their workers and cheat their customers. You could ask Steve Albini, or you could ask any of these women in a Nike sweatshop.

In the London riots, a warehouse owned by Sony housing materials to be distributed by Pias was burned down. Thousands of DVDs and CDs were lost. My first thought was, “Oh no, independent artists will be hurt!” My second thought was “Who was going to buy all that shit?” In fact, the fire could be a boon to some of the affected parties, since they’ll get insurance payout on stock that a decent internet connection renders worthless, unsaleable. Just a bunch of flat shiny discs that fewer and fewer people want, that fewer and fewer people can pay for. Isn’t this the world of pirates, the world where art doesn’t need factories and warehouses and sweatshops, where everyone can pay according to their ability, where the giant corporations who suck income from us at every turn end up looking like this? This is what our piracy, our looting can do.

Holding up the “indie labels” was a way to try and make us feel bad, to think that looters were hurting nice little companies run by nice indie people. It functions the same as this picture:

A nice old man, rummages through the wreckage of his shop. “I’ll probably have to close because I haven’t got insurance,” and we are supposed to imagine the terrible looters who took “a number of small items, including his kettle and cotton wool” from this poor old man. How could they do this? And we forget that the reason people rioted was not that they hated this old man, but because the police murdered yet another one of them, and then roughed up a teenager at a peaceful demonstration against the killing.

While we don’t know what this man’s relationship was to the people who stole his kettle, we should be aware that looting, like piracy, can harm people who we don’t think deserve it. We can pirate independent art and loot independent businesses as easily as the big name stuff, even more easily. Some music fans adopt an ethical stance, saying they support artists they like in various ways — promising to buy the CD, paying for a ticket, purchasing a T-shirt. There’s no reason looters can’t have the same ethics, against hurting people and against destroying the property of those who contribute to the community. I suspect many already do.

An NPR story about looting (related to Katrina hysteria, where we discovered that white people never loot), argues there can be ethics of looting. “Who could let their child or grandmother go hungry in a catastrophic emergency not of one’s own making simply to preserve the ethical rule against stealing?” Anita Allen asks. These silly conditionals are a middle class affectation, designed to obscure the fact that it doesn’t take a catastrophic emergency for needs to go unmet. Take that part out. Who could let their child or grandmother go hungry simply to preserve the ethical rule against stealing?

The people that say information wants to be free don’t say that shoes want to be free. Or that iPhones want to be free. Or that food wants to be free. Information doesn’t want to be free. Information doesn’t want anything. To say so is to disavow the truth: we want information to be free, because we know that is the way it should be. That art, knowledge, and formulas to life-saving medicines shouldn’t be commodities, but should be available on different terms, not exclusively on something as capricious as our ability pay. This is not some special preserve of art. This is true of clothing, of food, and of gadgets. It is true of survival, and of pleasure too.

Pirate Capitalists will tell you there are new business models out there, that piracy can reinvigorate a moribund media production and distribution system. I think they are wrong, that they are mostly hucksters, and that very few people will end up profiting much from a pirate media economy. But very few people benefit from capitalism at all, though for a while we fooled ourselves into thinking that plenty of people would do just fine under it. Our task is not to find new business models for the current system. What we need to do is realize that the art and social relations we want cannot be supported by the current system, and that the current system needs radical change. This change will come from the gravediggers that the current system of private property produces, the people who don’t benefit from it and have the power to destroy it. Pirates. Looters. Us.

New Arks

March 15, 2011

Since most of history’s giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias.

–Mike Davis

extraction of surplus value has become the ultimate ethical horizon

February 25, 2011

From that same term paper:

If these moral arguments for authenticity, leveled against the profit motive, held sway during a time when art and commerce had a more fraught relationship (roughly the same period during which Adorno was publishing his screeds against the cultural commodity system), under neoliberalism any ethical appeal must carry an economic logic with it as well. Those fighting against the culture industry definitions of property do so in the name of increased profits, not necessarily increased freedom. Lawrence Lessig defends certain types of copyright infringement as creative use, positing that an ebbing of certain copyright provisions could increase income. “Less control here could mean more profit” (283). Matt Mason argues that “Pirates are taking over the good ship capitalism” in order to “plug the holes, keep it afloat, and propel it forward” (239). Profit, the extraction of surplus value, has become the ultimate ethical horizon. These writers, postmodern combinations of activist and business guru, propose that the authenticity of commodities, the horizon of significance, follow potential profits, not established law. Their only difference from the culture industry discourse occurs when they speculate about where the largest profits might lay, and their books are devoted to convincing the culture industry that surplus value will be best realized through actions currently considered piratical, inauthentic. They feel the pressure of a new constellation of economic and technological forces, and they hope to shape the general will, the social contract, and thus the contract that establishes the authenticity of the commodity. In the work of Lessig and Mason, the commodity stands in for values such as transparency, free speech, creativity. It is a fetish.

I think that this actually might be a tactical move by Lessig, since he’s constantly trying new initiatives and approaches to change IP law. Unfortunately, he seems cursed to continually, perhaps compulsively, repeat his failure before the Supreme Court: an enlightened courtesan vainly appealing elites for reforms. Here he’s trying to convince CEOs that piracy will help their companies, but I’m not sure he actually cares about such things. His latest project, Change Congress, drastically widens his scope as it deepens the hole in which he finds himself — choosing institutional channels that undercut his goals. Of all his organizations, this one is at once the most ambitious and the least likely to meet with any kind of success. I kind of feel bad for the guy.

The Value of Free?

March 9, 2010

This was the title of my last slide at my presentation at the 2010 Columbia Music Conference, one that I didn’t get to because of time, but was probably more important than discussing various filesharing architectures. What is the value of free? When price recedes as a determiner of value, what takes it place?

Because computers function as data-copiers and file-sharers, it’s getting harder and harder to put in place walls that force people to pay for content, whether it’s music, movies, or news. Restrict access too much and you’ll lose your audience. Culture wants to be free. But we live under an economic system where we are required to support ourselves by selling our labor for wages. To spend time making something — a song, video, mashup, blog post — and give it away for free runs counter to the instrumental logic of capitalism. And when more and more people have to work harder for less, such “free labor” can strike some as particularly galling.

Take, for instance, a recent Tweet by Paul Gilroy, a noted left academic who has written several books canonical to cultural studies. A major component of There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack and The Black Atlantic are meditations on the transnational links formed by the fashioning and refashioning of black music forms, arguing that these seemingly distinct genres are in fact a common conversation among the black diaspora. With his focus on reggae and hip hop, forms that have traditionally taken a loose approach to intellectual property, Gilroy might be sympathetic to the ethos of free culture and digital piracy. Or not.

Gilroy is apparently perturbed because someone has scanned and distributed his work. I must say that this sort of activity, if not exactly rampant, certainly has its place in university settings. I myself have shared content in contravention of the established IP rules of my institution; currently, I have professors who use a variety of methods to get articles longer than the allowable page limit to their students. Once it was an entire book. The logic is clear: students tend to be poor, and spend enough on books as it is. Library books are never there when you need them. A better way to make sure everyone’s reading the assignments is to simply scan and upload. But this cuts into several other bottom lines, including Gilroy’s.

It’s the last sentence that strikes me: “Consumer mentality fuels supposed radicalism.” Gilroy posits that the “free culture” move is rooted in the type of late capitalist acquisitiveness that wants as much as it can get for the lowest price possible. Filesharers have found the best sale price — $0.00 — so stock up! I must admit that there’s a kernel of truth there, that plenty of people amass great archives of content in a kind of conspicuous consumption. To troll the web downloading willy-nilly for free has a lot in common with a shopping spree.

But is this really what most people do? Sure, plenty of unapologetic filesharers will dogmatically demand free content while offering nothing in return. But this isn’t everybody. Many filesharers argue that as they become better illegal consumers they become better legal ones as well. “Support the artists you like” is the rallying cry at many a torrent community, and users boast about purchasing albums when they come out, seeing artists on tour, and buying merchandise. They are giving back voluntarily to the artists that give something to them. The value of free is that when content loses its value as a commodity, when exchange value — that value that for Marx quashes all other values — drops to zero,  new values can emerge. Social values. When money can no longer mediate between buyer and seller, smoothing transactions and insulating both sides from each other, we return to an older form of market relations. A deal must be struck.

Gilroy’s follow-up Tweet:

Instead of an etiquette, which is an established code of rules of politeness, I’m rather more excited about the potential of an ethic of digipiracy. An etiquette can only take place within a concrete social group; the dispersed, anonymous nature of the internet makes this types of codes difficult to enforce (not that there aren’t TONS of rules and codes among filesharers). An ethic is a decision one makes regarding the rightness or wrongness of one’s conduct. It is the recognition of responsibility to something beyond oneself. Some ethnographic field work I’ve been doing on flea markets has been instructive. Market situations with a strong social component — old world markets, flea markets, Web 2.0 — lack reassuring price tags and contracts that force social interaction into highly prescribed and regulated behaviors. Instead, both parties must negotiate, and come to an accord that satisfies buyer and seller. If one side bargains to hard, attempts to “get over” on the other side, the risk is not merely a breach of etiquette, but an ethical lapse, a tarnish that potentially jeopardizes future negotiations. Screw someone over, and they’ll remember it, and probably tell their friends.

A negotiation of this sort is happening right now between news publications and their readers over ad-blocking add-ons to web browsers. Digital publications make their money from ad views (not ad clicks, as was the old model). Ad blockers remove the ads, and also the income from the views. Readers with ad-blockers read for free. As Ars Technica and The Guardian point out, this is an ethical problem, a problem in what readers decide they owe the publishers/writers of what they read. (Contrast this to the stark moral and legal language used by the MPAA and RIAA in which free downloading becomes equated with terrorism and evil.) Ken Fisher’s appeal:

My argument is simple: blocking ads can be devastating to the sites you love. I am not making an argument that blocking ads is a form of stealing, or is immoral, or unethical, or makes someone the son of the devil. It can result in people losing their jobs, it can result in less content on any given site, and it definitely can affect the quality of content. It can also put sites into a real advertising death spin. As ad revenues go down, many sites are lured into running advertising of a truly questionable nature.

Ken lays out the repercussions of ad-blocking, and by doing so, makes the economics of web publishing more transparent to readers. He has to demystify the commodity he produces — writing and reporting — by shedding light on the labor processes and social relations undergirdding the text that seemingly magically appears on our computers. Commodity fetishism masks these relationships of production, but when the price tag goes away, the commodity’s status is destabilized. We might have to recognize that there are people working here!

I think in some ways the Internet and its vast anonymity feeds into a culture where many people do not think about the people, the families, the careers that go into producing a website. People talk about how annoying advertisments are, but I’ll tell you what: it’s a lot more annoying and frustrating to have to cut staff and cut benefits because a huge portion of readers block ads. Yet I’ve seen that happen at dozens of great sites over the last few years, Ars included.

Initially, Ars Technica blocked content from anyone with an ad blocker, but this was “bargaining too hard,” and they alienated readers. So they backtracked and did something different. They asked. They appealed to each reader’s sense of obligation to the site, but they didn’t force anything. And in return, if the comments indicate anything, many people complied. The crucial part of an ethical choice is that one must be free to choose.

At the Guardian, a similar discussion emerged. Many readers said they were forced into the use of ad blockers by intrusive and obnoxious ads. A negotiation will have to take place. Perhaps the Guardian can strike a deal with their readers to limit the use of flash ads in exchange for being put on the ad blocker “whitelist.” This deal will be unenforceable and impermanent. The paper will have to make its case to each reader that they have a stake in the continuation of the Guardian. Not just a stake, but a responsibility and a key role.

Ars Technica and The Guardian can make these ethical appeals because of their reputation as publications. Companies with poor reputations will have trouble convincing users to view ads or help them out. I’m thinking of Facebook here, a site that has revealed itself to be callous and insensitive to users’ privacy claims even as it begins to turn a profit. Will the mealy-mouthed Mark Zuckerberg, who seems to lack much in the way of ethics, be able to convince users to unblock ads? This is a two-way street. Users only have obligations to producers who have obligations to them. I might ask Gilroy what he thinks his obligation is to poor graduate students who want to grapple with his work, but have trouble affording to buy books at the bookstore. I bought There Ain’t No Black used off of Amazon — what’s his take on that? To settle this, he’ll have to enter into some kind of relationship with his readers.

I think I was beginning to gesture at this in a previous post on ethical consumption. Western fans, DJs, labels, and producers of dance music from the global south (we’ll avoid the dreaded GG term) were struggling to come to some kind of fair relationship with the creators and originators of these genres. I think the reason this came up was that most of us in the imperial core were getting our reggaeton, funk carioca, kuduro, etc. free from filesharing. For a lot of this stuff, I couldn’t buy it if I wanted to — free was the only way to do it. And though I was suspicious of the motives behind this — I think I was worried lines would start being drawn over who was “doing enough” for the funk back in Rio, for instance — maybe these motives were similar to those readers who unblocked ads on Ars Technica. People felt they owed something to the people making this music they liked and wanted to play with, but they weren’t sure how to do it. So what happened? Some of the more adventurous actually went to these places to meet artists, set up labels, put on shows in Europe and the U.S. Sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t, but people connected and experimented, never unproblematically, across borders that in a previous era were all but insurmountable.

This is the value of free. Instrumental relationships are supplanted by social ones. Questions are asked. Positions are negotiated. Thought is created. There are no guarantees.