Plunder, pillage, and profit

By MIKE MILIARD  |  January 16, 2008

“For me, ‘piracy’ and ‘pirate’ always had really positive connotations,” says Mason, over the phone from New York, of London’s DJ culture. “It was the pirates who were my heroes.” On the other hand, his brief employment at Atlantic Records in 1999, just as Napster’s toll was becoming apparent, gave him a look at an opposite culture: the crumbling corporate giant. “I became very disillusioned and didn’t stay very long. I thought, ‘This isn’t the music industry. The things I’ve been doing my whole life — the pirates and the clubs — that’s the music industry.’ ”

No, Mason admits, piracy is “not good for the people who run the stores, and it’s not good for the people who run the labels.” But here’s the thing: it’s good for pretty much everyone else. It offers choice and brings about change. It creates a fairer, more efficient system. As he writes in The Pirate’s Dilemma: “Pirates highlight areas where choice doesn’t exist and demand that it does.”

“People are definitely of two minds about it,” says Mason. “But if you’re in the business of selling intellectual property, it’s something you can’t help but think about.”

Yes, there are instances when fighting piracy is preferable to adapting and adopting. In the final chapter of the book, Mason uses game theory to identify such scenarios. But for the most part, he argues, pirates offer ideas that can lead to betterment and efficiency.

As “the Information Age hits puberty,” with the Web leveraging youthful ingenuity in new and different ways every day, there’s slow-growing acceptance of the pirate’s value to society. Even the co-chair of Disney has declared that “piracy is a business model.” (The irony there, of course, is that Disney became a behemoth thanks to movies based on old fairy tales that had fallen into the public domain. Today, it would like nothing more than to keep Mickey Mouse under copyright protection in perpetuity.)

In fact, piracy has long been at the heart of the American dream — it’s in our blood. “The Founding Fathers,” Mason writes, “pursued a policy of counterfeiting European inventions, ignoring global patents, and stealing intellectual property wholesale.”

Such flagrant disregard for laws was essential to our initial economic strength. And it’s been indispensable to the flowering of our technology and media. When Edison invented the phonograph, musicians raged that he meant to “steal” their work — until a system was put in place to pay them royalties. When, after pioneering cinema, Edison demanded a licensing fee from anyone using his projection technology, Mason writes, “a band of filmmaking pirates” fled West, “where they thrived, unlicensed, until Edison’s patents expired.” Hollywood was born.

If copyright law throughout the centuries had been allowed to stifle these innovations, Mason argues, America might look “more like a giant Amish farm.”

Biological Napster
Mason’s book isn’t just about the ways piracy can inform big business. It’s about the way huge economic and societal shifts can spring from seemingly insignificant youth culture.

He points out examples of pirate-like thinking from our recent history, from the Situationists on the Left Bank in the ’50s, to the DIY punk movement in London in the ’70s, to the hip-hop revolution in the Bronx in the ’80s.

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