Plunder, pillage, and profit

By MIKE MILIARD  |  January 16, 2008

Each has had profound, sometimes unexpected, impacts on how information is disseminated, how we make money, how we engage in the world. “I realized that all these struggles are the same,” says Mason. “The people who are pushing back for the good of everybody, that’s who I define as pirates.”

Many such innovations happened right here in Massachusetts. Reginald Fessenden’s radio transmission from Marshfield’s Brant Rock on Christmas Eve 1906 made him the world’s first pirate DJ. Mason credits Sister Alicia Donohoe, a nun from Dorchester, with unknowingly inventing disco in 1949 when she set up a couple of turntables for impromptu dances in her daycare class. (One of her pupils was five-year-old David Mancuso, who grew up to host the first underground dance parties). And few can forget the failed experiment that was the Mooninite fiasco a year ago.

The book is most interesting when Mason looks beyond music and media to examine how lessons learned from this “punk capitalism” are impacting less-expected areas. Of the pharmaceutical industry, for instance, he says, plainly and provocatively: “Never before has an industry needed piracy so badly.”

Why? Because millions of Third World people who can’t access or afford the drugs produced by Big Pharma are dying every year. It’s a system, says Mason, that’s “totally and utterly broken. It doesn’t do anybody any good.” His prescription? “When the market fails and democracy is ignored, pirates should step into the breach.”

And so — just like the early Americans did with other countries’ intellectual property — pharmacists in India and South America simply ignore Western drug patents. “This is the crux of what pirates do,” says Mason. “They don’t just come into a marketplace and start benefiting people. They create conversations. They create periods of chaos that we then have to re-examine.”

Of course, says Mason, the pharmaceuticals have the right to make huge profits selling Viagra to the wealthy. But when it comes to life-saving drugs, “it shouldn’t even be a discussion. And the government of Thailand is not discussing it. They’re just letting piracy happen. And I think that’s good.”

In a world where biotech companies are patenting the genetic codes of animals and of human tissues, where Monsanto is developing proprietary sterilized seeds that won’t reproduce (“like copy-protected mp3 files”), pirates have the potential to end-run corporate cupidity and do good for the planet. As Mason puts it: “If we can copy cells like mp3 files, shouldn’t someone be building a biological Napster?”

Calling the shots
In the Internet age, “the pirate,” as Mason quotes designer Mark Ecko, “has become the producer.” Ecko, of course, was able to turn a graffiti tag into a billion-dollar enterprise. His viral video — in which spray-can-wielding kids appear to tag Air Force One — was seen by 115 million people, the kind of advertising it would cost millions to get otherwise.

In this brave new decentralized world, you could do the same. “If you have something that you think is valuable, if you have a good idea, then there are two opposing forces at work,” says Mason. “One is, ‘How can I get this out there and make people aware of this,’ and the other is, ‘How can I make money from this?’ ”

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