Booty-licious: The Pirate’s Dliemma
In The Pirate's Dilemma: How Hackers, Punk Capitalists, Graffiti Millionaires And Other Youth Movements Are Remixing Our Culture And Changing The World former pirate DJ and Vice writer Matt Mason plunders the annals of pop culture for sparkling bounty – colourful tales of creative rebels sticking it to the establishment, from seasick DJs giving Britain commercial radio, to spraycan outlaws turning graffiti tags into clothing empires, even pharmaceutical rebels side-stepping patents to distribute cheap generic versions of HIV drugs.
Mason celebrates the twin glories of punk capitalism and remix culture – the lessons of which are essentially ‘do it yourself and get on with it’, and ‘feel free to rework good ideas’. In grand Freakonomics style he illustrates the power of these principles with a motley crew of street entrepreneurs, showing how lumbering corporations cling to copyright law when they could be assimilating the nous of the pirates who rip them off.
However, he leaves his definition of piracy unrestricted, and while this gives him free reign to sail the seven seas for inspiring and surprising stories – the day they tagged the President’s plane; LL Cool J smuggling a FUBU baseball cap into a Gap ad; a former offshore WWII naval base turned rebel nation – this indiscriminate attitude weakens the book’s ability to nail a coherent argument. Mason picks up the charming tale of how a nun with a record player was the original inspiration for disco godfather David Mancuso. It’s great that he tracked down Sister Alicia, and yes, she is arguably a starting point for what became global club culture, but how on earth is she a pirate?
His most consistent theme is that piracy enriches the culture, broadening access to music, art and ideas, and that remixing this stolen treasure is now the dominant form of creativity – ignore it at your peril. But while free music might be great for those doing the listening, it’s not so good for musicians and producers, and Mason fails to offer them much hope. In writing a book that champions piracy (or at least acknowledges it as a positive force) you really have a duty to consider the rights of the individual to protect their intellectual property, not just the public rewards of a creative free-for-all.
Perhaps this omission is because he’s merged two kinds of piracy. As Steven Poole points out in the Guardian, “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.”
I’ve been plagiarised and it’s a maddening experience: knowing that something you worked hard to create has been lazily copied with little or no added value (the rotter in question even paraphrased some of our jokes). So it was an interesting lesson to read The Pirate’s Dilemma, as Mason has picked up and run with several of the stories from Last Night A DJ Saved My Life. Best of these is a remix of our history of the remix... with a Star Wars theme thrown in for good measure. I’m happy to say it was a completely different experience: less like theft than a gracious tribute, the difference between a profiteering bootleg and a clever new version.
Ultimately the idea of piracy hinges on your notion of originality. Is there such a thing or is it just about well-hidden references? Talent borrows but genius steals. Despite its less than rigorous logic, The Pirate’s Dilemma, a treasure chest of creativity and cultural transmission, lies on the side of genius.
© Frank Broughton, 2008
A DJhistory original
DJhistory interviews author Matt Mason
DJH: What, in a nutshell, is The Pirate’s Dilemma?
Matt Mason: It’s a problem we have with all kinds of information. When we have a new idea, there are two opposing forces at work. At the same time as we are thinking “how can I get this out there?” we’re also asking ourselves “how can I benefit from and monetise this idea?” We want to spread ideas as information, but capitalise on them as intellectual property. But the dilemma also relates to how others use our information, not just how we use it. It’s a framework to think about what you should do when someone ‘pirates’ your intellectual property. When pirates start competing with us, do we throw lawsuits at them, or do we try to match them play for play? To compete or not to compete – that is the question. I make the case that – although fighting pirates can be valuable and advisable in many situations – in others it’s better to compete by legitimising what it is the pirates are doing.
How did the book come about?
I left RWD in 2005 after nearly four years of editing the magazine and really wanted to write about something different. A couple of people approached me about writing Grime: The Book, but my heart wasn’t in it. One of my favourite aspects of my career had been being involved in the underground and mainstream sides of both music and media, and I felt that there was a good book idea there. That was where the idea started – the place it ended up was different.
You seem to think piracy, on the whole, is a good thing. Why?
I think it can have good and bad outcomes, hence the dilemma. But when it is good it’s because it adds value to society. Pirates are only worth competing with in the marketplace if they are adding value to society in some way. The way to compete with pirates is to legitimise what they are doing, and find a way to monetise that value. Steve Jobs did it with iTunes. Radiohead did it with In Rainbows. Nike also gets it – it allowed Japanese fashion brand A Bathing Ape to come out with a very similar looking sneaker to their Air Force One, because the company realised that particular shoe, which was more of a remix than a trademark infringement, was adding value to their original the same way a good remix adds value to an original tune.
Piracy is the sharp end of innovation, innovation by any means necessary. Digital distribution is a much more efficient way to deliver music than CDs and that's why people switched to it without the music industry wanting them to. A lot of people think my argument is that all piracy is great, which isn't really the argument. The argument in the book is piracy can actually be a market signal. It really highlights market failures in many ways.
Tell us a little about your days DJing on pirate stations.
I started doing it in my teens in London, I was good friends with a lot of the FLEX and DON FM guys in West London where I grew up, then I went to Uni in Bristol – there were no garage DJs down there at the time (1996). I was hooked on it when I moved up from London so I got pretty serious with it then, playing on Powerjam out of St Paul’s. I moved back after I graduated and got on MAC FM 92.7 FM, one of the biggest stations in North London, later moving over to ICE 88.4 FM – I was on Sunday afternoons, great time to be doing it, especially in summer if we had a studio with a good view of the city. There’s no buzz like doing a good show when the phone is going constantly. But going up to the studio with your records and a hangover and then getting hit by the DTI five minutes into the show wasn’t much fun. They were pretty cool with us though, the station manager knew the guys in the DTI van. And the police used to advertise with us cos we had such a big audience. All the majors too.
UK pirate radio came about because it met a demand for pop music which wasn’t met by the establishment. With a station like 1Xtra, has the BBC once again taken the wind out of the pirates’ sails?
I don‘t think the BBC or large commercial stations will ever take the wind out of the pirate’s sails because they don’t have the freedom to be as creative. They can take what they create and bring it to a wider audience, which is great but the real innovation can only happen without a playlist, without the boundaries created by being a multi-million pound media organisation.
I still listen to the London pirates over the internet every day when I’m working (I listen to NYC radio when I’m in the kitchen). You can understand what’s happening in London socially by what’s happening on the pirates. That was what initially inspired me to look at society through the lens of youth culture to gauge change, it was the pirates that made me see how youth culture acts as social experiments. I listen to Rinse FM a lot, DJs like Supa D and Perempay are pushing a new strain of the deep/funky house sound in London that’s pretty exciting right now.
Is there something about the UK that makes us great pirates?
There are great examples of piracy all over the world, but I think we're consistently good at piracy here in Britain, especially when it comes to music. For decades, pirate stations have continued to provide us with new artists, DJs and genres, not to mention inspiring new legal stations such as Kiss FM. As a society we've allowed the pirates to stay in business because enough of us recognise they add an extraordinary amount of value to British culture in a way mainstream commercial radio simply cannot. It's sad to see us punishing some of our greatest pirates today, instead of figuring out how to compete with them. When file-sharing site OiNK, arguably one of the finest repositories of recorded music ever assembled, had its Teesside HQ raided last October, we lost a great site that should have somehow been allowed to exist legally.
The internet has revolutionised how people hear new music, and given broadcasters a global reach, yet it’s so dispersed. Could an internet radio station ever have the cultural impact that Radio Caroline had in the ’60s or Kiss FM in the ’80s?
It probably won’t be a radio station, it will be something like OiNK or The Pirate Bay. The file sharing sites have already had a huge impact culturally which the mainstream is only just beginning to absorb. By the end of the year the majors will be selling all the MP3s you can download for $5 a month. What’s crazy to me is they took so long to legitimize piracy. File sharing has become a new form of youth culture – they should have legitimized it and co-opted it the way they did with disco, because this time the result of a legit alternative would probably be a good thing.
You have a great chapter where you describe the evolution of remixing (which in itself is an inspired remix). Why do you think remixing has become the predominant method of creativity? Have we run out of truly original ideas, or were there never really any to begin with?
I’m glad you think so because it was inspired by your book. I wouldn’t have written The Pirate’s Dilemma if you’d never written Last Night A DJ Saved My Life – I just wouldn’t have come across a lot of those stories.
I think the idea of improving upon other ideas is human nature, what I love about remixes is they make this very explicit – they turn an internal process we take for granted into something you can observe. But remixes do create original innovations too. I think what’s happening is we’re just getting better at them.
What’s your definition of a pirate? Sometimes it seems very broad. Sister Alicia, for example. She was the start of a chain of events that led to disco, but how does that make her a pirate?
Not everyone in the book is a pirate – I used the term to talk about all kinds of people sharing and using information in strange new ways. I called the book ‘The Pirate’s Dilemma’ and not ‘The Pirate Dilemma,’ because I see no difference between us and them. Illegal pirates, legitimate companies, and law-abiding citizens are now all in the same space, working out how to share and control information in new ways. The Pirate’s Dilemma is not just about how we compete against pirates, and how we treat them, it’s also about how we can become better by recognizing the pirate within ourselves.
Graffiti can be used as a tool for free speech, protest and satire, but isn’t that the exception rather than the rule? Isn’t most of it just ugly, lazy tagging: dogs pissing on lamp-posts?
I think that all depends on the observer. Same thing goes for piss on lampposts – it’s all good if you’re a dog. Graffiti is a really provocative and subjective art form. A lot of it is vandalism, but it’s the only form of art which is truly democratic, which belongs to people rather than galleries and establishments.
You mention cultural viruses; what about computer viruses? Aren’t they a form of piratical creativity? There’s a really strong parallel between viruses and graffiti.
Yeah – the way we are learning to distribute information using other people is very interesting. I’m fascinated by how graffiti itself has gone viral – it’s so important to be seen up on the big blogs like Wooster Collective for street artists, for you’re stuff to be up on Flickr streams. Flickr is the new subway line.
In an open source world, how can creative people get paid what they deserve for their ideas? If copyright no longer existed, wouldn’t creative people have to also be ruthless businessmen to be sure of making money?
Open source is providing us with new ways to think about getting things done. Before Wikipedia we only thought it was possible to create an encyclopaedia with a company and people being paid. Open source is about creating new forms of social capital, like the code which forms the basis of the internet. But it’s perfectly acceptable to create new businesses which capitalise on that social capital and create private wealth – like Yahoo or Google or djhistory.com.
Copyright is a separate issue – but I still think we need it. We need all kinds of intellectual property law, we need to protect creativity. But when a copyright law stops protecting creativity and instead protects an obsolete business model, then we need to think about it differently.
Are you arguing for the end of copyright or are you just championing the importance of creative rebellion?
The latter. I wouldn’t be able to feed myself if we didn’t have copyright law. But when people start infringing en masse, sometimes it’s more productive to try and legitimize what it is they’re doing.
You’re broadly advocating piracy, yet your book is protected by copyright. Isn’t this having your cake and eating it? Did you consider releasing it as open-source?
It took a while, but I finally got both my English language publishers to release the e-book under a pay-what-you-want system last week. Thousands of people are downloading it, and about 10% of them are paying. It’s also helping sales of hard copies.
Doing this makes a lot of sense given the arguments in this particular book, but it’s true for all authors that piracy isn’t a threat, it’s an opportunity.
There are millions of books on amazon.com, and on average each will sell around 500 copies a year. The average American is reading just one book a year, and that number is falling. The problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. Authors are lucky to be in a business where electronic copies aren’t considered substitutes for physical copies by most people who like reading books (for now at least). By treating the electronic version of a book as information rather than property, and circulating it as widely as possible, many authors actually end up selling more copies of the physical version. Pirate copies of The Pirate’s Dilemma are out there online anyway, and they don’t seem to have harmed sales. My guess is they are helping. To be honest, I was flattered that the book got pirated in the first place.
Finally, Sir Walter Raleigh or Captain Pugwash?
A little of both.
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