CNN reports today that pirates attacked a luxury cruise liner off the coast of Somalia. Finally, some proper piracy to gripe about. It's the culture that's the real victim when children grow up thinking pirates are college freshmen using BitTorrent to rip off over-priced Microsoft product. I rue the day my granddaughter asks me to explain why Peter Pan had it in for the friendly file-sharing Captain Hook. Thank God we have the Somalians to help us set the record straight. They and the wonderful folks behind the International Talk Like A Pirate Day (September 19), which my father has celebrated annually since 2002. But I digress. What I really want to bitch about here is our society's bourgeoisie intolerance toward media piracy.
It may come as somewhat of a surprise that I, a media artist of sorts, should take such an unusual stand on the industry's anointed antichrist. The fact is, I see nothing morally wrong with most forms of media piracy, and I'm happy to defend my position on philosophical grounds.
As an instructional example, I offer the uproar over Google's library project. Google wants to blow the doors off the world's greatest university libraries, advancing the cause of literacy in general and expanding the potential audience for each author's work on a global scale, but instead of praising Google's bold step, the publishing industry and many individual authors are screaming mad over copyright.
Here is where I believe copyright law crosses the fine line between author protection and consumer gestapo -- it pretends that there's little inherent difference between trading ideas/information and trading physical objects. In fact, strictly speaking, ideas cannot be copywritten, but then the definition of ideas in the legal sense is kind of narrow. For the purposes of my argument, we're going to broaden the meaning.
When a work of art is created, both the physical work itself and the idea of the work are copyrighted. If I paint a painting, I own not only the physical canvas and paint but the idea of that canvas. No one can legally copy that painting for public display. If I record a song, no one can use that recording without my permission. Neither can anyone make their own recording or perform my song in public.
The purpose of this design is sensible enough. It is to make sure that 1.) authors get recognition for their work and 2.) authors don't starve to death. We refer to these two principles together as "authorial control," as in the author has control over who has the right to copy his or her work, hence "copyright." My problem is this: having been educated in post modern literary theory and linguistic philosophy, I understand that there's no such thing as "authorial control," at least not in an a posteriori sense. Authorial control is a construct, an ancient contract adhered to by society for centuries, and we've been duped.
We now realize that an author's original intent when creating a work has no bearing on its actual meaning, because its actual meaning is multiple, always subjective, and determined not only by the consumer but by the historical, social, emotional, and environmental contexts that influence the consumer's perspective. It's why we have Catholics and Protestants. Two people can read the same text and understand it differently. Authorial control is the sacred cow of the pre modern age. Post modernism, on the other hand, is democratic -- ideas belong to everybody, as does the control of those ideas. Where once there was a monologue, a dialogue has taken shape.
It is entirely appropriate to acknowledge authorship. Plagiarism, as far as I'm concerned, is a grave and arrogant evil. Assimilation, adaptation, and revision, however, is the right of every thinking mind. See Wikipedia for a glorious example of how well this idea can work when set into motion. It is my contention that when people are invited to participate in works of art, their appreciation for the original genius of the author only grows exponentially. It takes learning to play "Wipe Out" on guitar and drums to realize that it is not as stupid and naive as it first sounds; it is actually a profoundly complicated song structure and frickin' difficult to perform live.
Though "people have always done it" is not exactly a moral argument, precedent is a reasonable consideration in this debate. The fact is, file sharing is not an invention of the late 90s, so this sudden outrage seems disingenuous. Has everyone forgotten the mix tape? Doubtless everybody knew a bald guy growing up who had VHS copies of every world television premiere movie that aired in the mid 80s. Sharing one's favorite songs and movies with one's friends is a central ritual of American culture, without which society might just collapse.
But what about the economy? If everyone steals movies, songs, and yes, Microsoft software, won't the economy collapse? Won't whole industries implode? No. Industries are not felled by piracy. Industries are felled by greed. iTunes has thrived, despite the fact that free mp3s are still readily available to the consumer. Why is that? Partly because people like to pay for product -- as long as they're not paying more than the product is worth. CDs are ridiculously priced, so people would rather steal mp3s. When you make mp3s available for cheap, however, most people will actually buy them. Same goes for video content: iTunes has already sold 1 million downloads for the new video iPod. Software companies, however, are the worst offenders. Microsoft has a virtual monopoly on desktop publishing; Bill Gates now has more money than most of your more powerful deities, yet he and his company still charge $500 per box for Microsoft Office. That's half a mortgage payment for me, and I'm not willing to part with it.
I view media piracy as a form of righteous economic dissent, a nonviolent protest against major industries that seek to screw consumers out of every bloody cent. It is their behavior that is immoral, not mine. I would never pirate something I could afford to purchase. Nor would I pirate something that was frivolous or luxurious. But until the media industries start getting realistic about what they deserve, I will continue to indulge in guilt-free file sharing. As an artist who hopes to make a living at making art, I encourage everyone to do the same.
Admission of Getting Side-Tracked: As I began to jot this blog, I was going to discuss how piracy had driven me into extreme emotional duress (trouble installing cracked software that nearly drove me to tears). Without question, piracy has always been second class. Legal use is a lot less painful, and I honestly like opening the glossy boxes, reading the manual, and using a proper install disk when uploading new software. But again, I'm broke, and Bill Gates ain't.