In his impassioned treatise on the role of piracy in the modern world, particularly in regard to the controversial copyright/copyleft debate, Armin Medosch argues that “piracy, despite being an entirely commercially motivated activity carried out in black or gray markets, fulfills culturally important functions” (Medosch, 2008).
This is not, despite what some may think, yet another anarchic claim for the abolition of copyright, or even an exaltation of the righteousness of pirates and the deeply anti-authoritarian ethos that they represent in the eyes of many on the copyleft. “It would be a romantisation,” he writes, “to portray them as champions of cyber rights and net culture. At the same time our research has shown that piracy fulfills an important role by giving access to cultural goods which otherwise would be completely unavailable to the vast majority of the people.” (Medosch, 2008).
In drawing our attention away from the privileged, domineering Western world that has been responsible for much of the image of stricter copyright law being merely a tool for large corporations, Medosch is drawing the focus of this debate away from the philosophical idealism of the Anglo-American anti-copyright movement and into the more practical implications of what it truly means to have the option to pirate something of value. For us, the alternative to illegal downloading is having to pay for the product. For many other people around the world, it is having no access to that product at all.
As Fleischer points out, “consumption” has become something of a specialty for Western youth; “This is arguably the primary area of expertise for all of us,” he writes, “being knowledgeable, demanding yet highly casual and pernickety consumers” (Fleischer, 2008). Collectively, we have grown spoiled and complacent – anti-authoritarianism is all very well and good when you live in a liberal democracy with a free market, but ours is an ideologically-driven revolution. In many of the so-called “emerging” countries, rebellion is born of necessity.
Medosch compares this pragmatic piracy to its historical namesake, first developed due (in his eyes) to the establishment of a monopoly or oligopoly that smothered all chance of making an honest living, forcing people to resort to illicit means of earning a living. This is not limited to financial factors, either, but also allows development in fields which might otherwise be restricted by circumstance; as Richard Stallman points out, “in any intellectual field, one can reach greater heights by standing on the shoulders of others. But that is no longer generally allowed in the software field – you can only stand on the shoulders of the people in your own company.” (Stallman, 2002). Not only does this impede intellectual and technological progress, but also smothers the development of local cultural businesses. Like it or not, piracy is often the only way for these needs to be addressed.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but this certainly puts my own illegal downloading into sharp perspective.
So maybe next time you see this ad, you’ll wonder who really stands to lose the most.
Fleischer, R, “Re: ‘Paid in Full'”, Deptforth. TV Diaries II: Pirate Strategies, London: Deptforth TV, 2008, pp. 98-100
Medosch, A, “Paid in Full: Copyright, Piracy and the Real Currency of Cultural Production,” Deptforth. TV Diaries II: Pirate Strategies, London: Deptforth TV, 2008, pp. 73-97
Stallman, R, “Why Software Should be Free” Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard Stallman, Boston: GNU Press, 2002, pp. 121-133