Let's Lower The Pirate Flag

The New York Times recently ran “The Unrepentant Bootlegger,” an article profiling a video pirate. (OK, so between bootlegging and piracy, we are already mixing metaphors.) The article seemed at first like an attempt at profiling wrapped in a cautionary tale. Piracy (or bootlegging) may seem thrilling, kids, but this is how you are likely to end up: doing a little time, in debt, and now working in HR. (For some, not that different than going to college.)

The article quickly expanded to include a broader survey of the persistent robustness of the pirate trade, the mostly failed industry attempts to combat it (SOPA), and a cursory analysis of some of the business challenges faced by publishers and artists. It concluded with the less-than-convincing prospect that some of the new streaming services will prevail and bring order and security to sea lanes.  This seemed more like a draw:  Pirates v. Admiralty, all tied. 



In late August, the White House appointed a new “Piracy Czar.” This further mixing of metaphors has its own problems. But one thing that’s clear is that the piracy metaphor is not working. It is obscuring the problem rather than illuminating it. We just like pirates too much to want to see them disappear entirely. For example: Robert Louis Stevenson writes of  “schooners, islands, and maroons, and buccaneers, and buried gold, and all the old romance…”  We love “Pirates of the Caribbean” and Captain Hook. We have Dress like a Pirate Day at work. “I am the captain now” has become a catchphrase.

And while some parallels can be drawn between stealing digital assets and piracy -- from hosting on remote island nations, to personal treasure troves of digital booty -- they are coincidental. Acts of digital privateering are not like the hijacking of a tractor trailer truck or cargo ship, perpetrated by a small, furtive band that has chosen the criminal life or been pressed into desperate service.

The Times article quoted a report from Tru Optik estimating that nearly 10 billion files, including movies and television shows, were downloaded in the second quarter of 2014 -- and that only about 6% of those downloads were legal. This is not piracy. This is chronic and systemic looting.

Looting is a more troubling metaphor because it requires the admission of a near-total loss of control. The reasons for outbreaks of looting are many, complex, and multilayered. It is easy to dismiss individuals who take something that does not belong to them as simple criminals. Many are, but it is hard to dismiss entire communities, generations, market segments, and populations as such.  So we soften it by referring to them, more charmingly, as pirates.

It would be better to admit that they more resemble looters: not at all charming, or a sobriquet that anyone would want to wear on a T-shirt. To take mass outbreaks of looting as a framework to deconstruct and see more clearly ways to restructure the digital video business and discourage that behavior, would be a good beginning.

For example, if looting can (only in part) be attributed to “people feeling disconnected from the world” (a phrase taken from the late French sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s works) or the intoxication of "powerless people [who] suddenly feel powerful" (a quote from British criminologist John Pitts), understanding why and how digital media users feel disconnected or powerless is important. The recently released results from OpenMedia’s “Our Digital Future” survey suggest some points of frustration: a desire for more transparency, a larger share of the revenue going directly to artists, more affordability, a richer public domain, clearer provisions for sharing, etc. These are not the demands of a pirate.

If we think about the problem differently, by invoking a more disturbing but ultimately more productive metaphor, we can begin to think less reflexively about how we capture and consign pirates to the gallows -- and more about how we can provide a product consumers feel connected to, desire, value, can afford, and are willing to pay for. To stop the looting.

2 comments about "Let's Lower The Pirate Flag".
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  1. Leonard Zachary from T___n__, November 18, 2014 at 4:21 p.m.

    Look at it this way to start. Many folks having spent thousands$$ on DVD libraries who should own the content, cannot get the functionality of digital streaming, i.e. ripping your own DVDs to a hard drive for your personal consumption. Change piracy to Robin Hood.

  2. Robert Rosentel from Mediavatis Consulting LLC, November 19, 2014 at noon

    It is intriguing to ask the younger generation about their willingness to pirate content. They somehow see it as a "victimless crime".

    As long ago as 2001, I led a discussion with a group of undergraduates at an urban university about piracy and their feelings and was astonished to hear that they unanimously rejected the idea that:
    if the were NO CHANCE of making money on a film, because it would be stolen, then producers and studios will eventually stop making them.
    The students said "Absolutely not, movies like Gladiator have been around forever." Hardly forever. Commercial films as we know them are barely over a hundred years old.
    The 20 year olds in that class are now over 30. Has their attitude changed? I would be curious to hear other thoughts.

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