Pirate LogoThe Pirate's Dilemma


Archive for August, 2007

Fair Use Under Fire

On The Beach by The Paragons

Forty years ago this year, in a recording studio above a liquor store in Kingston, Jamaica, a sound engineer accidentally recorded an instrumental version of a record onto an acetate disc, also known as a dubplate. A DJ named Ruddy Redwood took that disc to a soundclash that evening, and mixed the instrumental version of the record (On The Beach, by The Paragons) together with the original vocal version. That night the crowd made him play it so many times, by the time the sun came up, the record was worn out. This is how the remix was born.

Forty years later the idea behind the remix, the idea of fair use, is all pervasive. We understand it implicitly, and expect to be able to use certain things a certain way. We understand that fair use is good, helps us learn and build on what came before us. Or at least, most of us do.

Increasingly the concept of fair use is coming under fire from some big businesses. Brands are worth more than the physical items they are placed on (which is why the world’s largest sneaker manufacturers don’t own any sneaker factories), physical capital has lost weight in the information age, ideas and content are more important. As fast as new ways develop for us to share information, a noose is also tightening around it.

Last weekend the NFL broadcast this message before a football game:

This statement essentially prohibits you from talking about the game with a friend. The first rule of the NFL is you do not talk about the NFL. The second rule of the NFL is YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT THE NFL!!!

This was the same week that commercial science publishers launched a non-profit organization called Prism to take down the open access science movement. Prism makes the bizarre claim that giving people free access to publicly-funded science research is the same as “government censorship”. Orwell couldn’t write this stuff. The best part of this story is that Prism were then busted by bloggers for allegedly “borrowing” the stock photos on their website from Getty Images.

Meanwhile Monsanto moved a step closer to patenting the pig, Amazon, Yahoo, Google and others were sued for using automated email responses, which have been patented in East Texas, and The Red Cross is getting sued for using the red cross as a logo by Johnson & Johnson.

If J&J win, Wal-Mart will probably soon try and copyright the smiley face, (wait, they already did) Urban Outfitters may trademark the face of Che Guevara and Reddit will sue this weird fish for looking like their alien.

The world is going mad. Fair use helps us create value and generate new ideas, locking ideas and information up behind unreasonable restrictions and artificial boundaries stifles it. It’s time to defend fair use for what it’s really worth. Luckily, the Computer & Communications Industry Association is fighting back.

“We filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission in which we asked the governments foremost enforcer of consumer rights to stop big media from making these ridiculous claims. Now, we want you to add your voice.

Their answer? Threats and exaggerations that misrepresent your rights. Your rights include the right to make Fair Use. But some of the Big Content companies don’t like the idea that the law limits their control over how you use what you’ve legally acquired. These companies know that, by law, anyone can quote, excerpt and even copy their works for things like journalism, homework and research and discussion of all sorts. Big media companies are turning increasingly aggressive in their efforts to discourage people from doing what they have always done with the media they bought and programs they have recorded in their own homes.”


Bootlegging Religion: Why the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the Consummate Pirate


In The Pirate’s Dilemma I talk a lot about how people use the pirate mentality to create new spaces in markets, and bring new ideas into the public consciousness. If they are adding value to society, the actions of pirates often create debates and dilemmas. Sometimes, by pirating something, pirates expose flaws in an original design or business model, and the very fact that those pirate copies are there means the original business model changes. A good example of this is how the music business was forced to legitimize downloading (something it still hasn’t quite got the hang of completely), but one of the most unorthodox uses of the pirate mentality yet has got to be the bootlegging of religion.

When heated debate began in the U.S. about intelligent design being taught in science classrooms as an alternative to evolution, it quickly became a hot-button issue nationally. Whether or not intelligent design is “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” is a matter I won’t get into here, except to say that it is. But what is also interesting about the intelligent design debate is how it came to be one in the first place.

It didn’t happen because new evidence refuting Darwin’s theory of evolution had come to light. The vast majority of scientists, including many men and women of faith, believe the controversial theory has less to do with science and more to do with political polemics, so chose to ignore it when it reared its head back in the late 1980s. The scientific community (not to mention more than 38 Nobel Laureates) wouldn’t give the theory the time of day, but some far-right politicians would. Instead of fighting science and the scientific method, which has proved to be a losing battle, proponents of intelligent design took the fight somewhere else.

Several individuals and organizations with creationist leanings lobbied school boards in Kansas, Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere to have intelligent design taught next to evolution, arguing that these “competing theories” must be given space in the classroom. Before you could say ‘separation of church and state’, the media, a gaggle of sound-bite hungry Senators and the President waded into the squabble.

Scientists gave intelligent design lobbyists the silent treatment, but the lobbyists could make a lot of noise on their own. Creationists couldn’t pick a fight with science, but politicians and the media proved to be much softer targets. But by creating this space for new theories, they also accidentally created a monster. A Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Bobby Henderson, a 25 year-old unemployed physics graduate from Oregon, was one of many people annoyed about intelligent design posing as science. But he saw a way of creating a pirate copy of a religion, which would highlight how ridiculous the whole debate was, and hopefully debunk the whole thing. In an open letter the Kansas Board of Education in the summer of 2005, he argued that intelligent design relied on the existence of a god, but it didn’t specify which one.

“We can all agree that it is important for students to hear multiple viewpoints so they can choose for themselves the theory that makes the most sense to them” he wrote. “I am concerned, however, that students will only hear one theory of Intelligent Design. I and many others around the world are of the strong belief that the universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster… I think we can all look forward to the time when these three theories are given equal time in our science classrooms across the country, and eventually the world; One third time for Intelligent Design, one third time for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism, and one third time for logical conjecture based on overwhelming observable evidence.” He threw the letter up on his website accompanied by a doodle of his noodly deity creating a mountain, trees and a midget.

Henderson intended his satirical letter to be nothing more. But within a few months, he was receiving oodles of email (95% of which was not death threats), his website was getting over two million hits a day, a host of other spaghetti monster sites depicting the carbohydrate-based creator had appeared and the ‘pastafarian’ movement the monster had spawned was hailed by the London Telegraph in 2005 as “the world’s fastest growing religion.”

“I don’t have any problem with religion, but it is not science,” Henderson told USA Today. “I don’t know if (the FSM parody) makes a difference… People who really need to get it aren’t probably listening. But if anything, it might bring some awareness to undecided people out there.’

As it turned out, the pasta-based parody made a big difference. Many academics taking the debate seriously got behind his noodliness, including members of the Kansas School Board in opposition to intelligent design, and Richard Dawkins. Soon school boards in Arkansas voted against teaching intelligent design in science classes, and U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, a Republican churchgoer, ruled the theory could not be taught in public school science classes in the state of Pennsylvania. The intelligent design supporters successfully hijacked the debate from the realm of science, pirate-style. But by relying on unsubstantiated faith-based claims, they took that debate into far more hostile waters. On this new battlefield, Henderson and his band of 10 million (and counting) pirates were able to take apart intelligent design with propaganda, parody, and cheap imitation, all low blows science wouldn’t resort to.

The spaghetti monster still has a lot of work to do. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, about 43% of Americans believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” However that number has fallen 3% since 2006, not bad for a bowl of pasta. Meanwhile pastafarianism has taken on a life of its own. Henderson landed an $80,000 book deal to write The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and sales of monster merch are bringing in a steady stream of revenue. Not that it really helps my argument, but the pastafarians haven’t just embraced the pirate mentality, they are also inexplicably obsessed with actual pirates. Arguing pirates are divine beings, they claim the Flying Spaghetti Monster wants everyone to dress like pirates and that global warming, hurricanes and other natural disasters are punishments for the declining number of buccaneers currently roaming the high seas (Henderson has even started a fund to build a pastafarian pirate ship, which he claims has received over $100,000 in donations). Piracy isn’t just good at creating innovation and improving society, it’s also a great antidote to a load of old bolognaise like creationism.


BIF-3 Logo

I just heard I’ll be speaking at this year’s BIF, the collaborative innovation summit held every year by the Business Innovation Factory, a very cool organization that does some great work. This year they have some truly remarkable speakers, including Clayton Christensen, Mark Cuban, Dan Heath and many others, so it was a real honor to be included in the line-up.

It’s happening in Providence’s Trinity Rep, Rhode Island on October 10-11, with Wall Street Journalist Walt Mossberg and Mavericks at Work author Bill Taylor hosting the event. Find out more here.

Antigua presents America with a Pirate’s Dilemma

Prohibition has often been fought with piracy, but never quite like this. Antigua and the U.S. signed a free trade agreement in the early 1990s which, according to The New York Times, has become a major bone of contention for both countries, not to mention the World Trade Organization. Antigua thinks the agreement covers online gambling, the country’s second largest employer after tourism. The U.S. disagrees, and wants to ban online gambling in Antigua, which would violate Antigua’s free trade rights as a W.T.O. member. The W.T.O. has sided with Antigua, saying the U.S. is out of compliance with its rules, and this is where things get really interesting.

The U.S has largely ignored the W.T.O. ruling (the U.S. has criticized China for doing the same thing in relation to copyright laws). In 2005 Washington even tried to Jedi mind-trick the W.T.O., telling them America had “been in compliance all along.” The U.S. has a lot to lose here – complying would mean completely restructuring U.S. gambling laws so offshore online casinos were permitted, or banning all forms of online gambling altogether. The W.T.O. has a lot to lose too – compared to Washington the organization is tiny, going head to head with its most powerful supporter would be unwise. The U.S. has simply decided to re-write the agreement so it no longer includes online gambling, and will have to compensate Antigua in some way for violating its trade rights.

But Antigua has raised the stakes. Antigua has the right under international law to violate American intellectual property laws, to offset its losses from the prohibition of online gambling. This would mean Antigua could freely distribute American movies, music and software (to the whole world, thanks to the Internet), which would present a much greater problem than online gambling. All bets are off as to how this will turn out, but the world is watching.

There is a fine line between piracy and free trade, or in this case, several. Creating Pirate’s Dilemmas as a foreign policy tool is unorthodox, but clearly very effective. More on this difficult balancing act as it happens…

Punk Capitalism

Punk Capitalism illustration by Art Jaz Illustration by Art Jaz

In the early 1970s, a new sound sprang from New York’s Lower East Side. Television, the New York Dolls, the Ramones and others took rock ‘n’ roll and broke the mold. They replaced complex big-hair power ballads with three chord riffs so simple that anyone could play them, removing the barrier between fans and musicians.

Rock ‘n’ Roll + Democracy = Punk.

First punk took over New York, then London, then the world. Punk was about putting purpose before profit, rebelling against the status quo and doing-it-yourself. In its original form, it didn’t last long as a scene, but the ideas it promoted are now having an effect on the whole world.

Today gaps between producers and consumers are shrinking everywhere. Many of us are now more like what Alvin and Heidi Toffler once described as Prosumers – doing-it-ourselves and producing as much stuff as we consume.

Purpose is becoming more important to more people; which is why nearly half of young professionals today say they would choose to avoid working for an employer that showed poor social responsibility. It’s why we recycle, it’s why more of us are driving these, and it’s also why car manufacturers are coming out with awesome new things like this and this.

But this new D.I.Y. ethic is also about rebelling. Apple can’t tell us to use AT&T on their iPhone anymore than the queen of rock can tell us to turn off the internet. Rock star brands and rock stars aren’t quite as important as they used to be. Barriers are coming down. Purpose and authenticity have more weight. Authority will be resisted.

Technology + Democracy = Punk Capitalism.

Advertising on Another Level

Wii 1

It’s becoming obvious to most in advertising that it doesn’t work as well as it used to. One of the topics I discuss at length in the book is the strange releationship that has long existed between graffiti and adverts. Today smart advertisers are taking a leaf from the playbook of street artists, placing more thoughtful, subtle messages in public that are less intrusive, but more engaging at the same time.


My favorite ad this week was this effort from Nintendo, who used post-it notes as pixels to recreate some of their legendary 8-bit characters. The back of each post-it also has a special message for fans. More at The Serif.

Saving the World, One Pair of Sneakers at a Time.

As a long-suffering sneaker addict, I always feel pangs of guilt when I’m picking up yet another pair of over-priced limited-edition kicks I don’t really need. But sweatshop labor, environmental degradation and mindless consumption are apparently on the minds of more than few sneaker heads, because lo and behold, the invisible hand of the free market is responding. Sneaker companies are serving up shoes-with-a-message in increasing numbers, but without compromising on design, creating shoes that appeal to both hypebeasts and treehuggers alike. Here are few of the options available:

Nike Considered

Nike Considered Soaker Low

Nike began getting its green on in a very serious way two years ago when it launched the Considered range. The entire line is produced using recycled rubber, biodegradable materials, and without the use of toxic adhesives of any kind. Designed for ‘total component disassembly’, they can be easily broken down and recycled, and use only local materials from within a 200 mile radius of the factories where they are produced. That’s hot.

Even hotter are the designs, which have been consistently improving over the years. This summer Nike released the Considered Soaker Mid, also part of the ACG range, with one eye very firmly on the streetwear audience. The Soaker is a really comfortable, great-looking shoe, whether you’re wearing in the city or whitewater rafting. Captain Planet needs to cop a pair.

Hood Rating: 4/5

Hippy Rating: 4/5



Taking its design cue from the Converse Chuck Taylor, the Blackspot is the sharp end of sneaker activism. Brought to you by the people who created Adbusters magazine, Blackspots are made sweatshop free by unionized workers in Europe from organic hemp, and were designed by John Fluevog. When you buy a pair, you also get shares in the Blackspot “anti-corporation.”

“Blackspots are a reaction to bogus, top-down corporate cool,” Adbusters and Blackspots Founder Kalle Lasn told me. “Behind Blackspots is a larger story, ethical companies, a new wave of businesses. I call it ‘kick-ass capitalism’. It’s a new kind of activism. People don’t hate logos. We are seeing a marriage of activism and kick-ass capitalism, an un-cooling of brands.”

The use of the situationist slogan “live without dead time” on the insole works really well, Guy Debord would definitely rock these. Its heart is definitely in the right place, bringing a lot of the manufacturing industry’s inconvenient truths home to roost. But after wearing them for a few hours, I did also have an inconvenient blister.

Hood Rating: 2/5

Hippy Rating: 5/5



NBA star Stephon Marbury’s line of cut-price sneakers is kicking up a storm. Marbury grew up in the projects of Coney Island, unable to afford $150 basketball shoes.

When he became an NBA star, he shunned the sneaker giant’s sponsorship money to go it alone and create Starbury, a line of shoes and sportswear that kids from low income families could afford. And just to prove his point, he even wears his shoes on court. Starbury isn’t about saving the environment or protesting globalization, but it is about the questioning the value we place in brands, and why.

Available only at Steve & Barry’s stores for the low price of $14.98, Starburys come in a range of styles and colors, drawing influences from other popular sneakers such as Bapes, Air Force Ones and New Balance 575s. Marbury’s message appears to be hitting home – there is a sign up at my local branch of Steve and Barrys: “Only ten pairs of Starburys per customer, per day.”

The shoes are incredibly comfortable, although I find they do wear out a little quicker than your average sneaker. Some have criticized the company for remaining largely silent on sustainability, how they are helping kids in the countries were Starburys are made, or why they have to be made overseas in the first place. There’s always room for improvement, but this is a great idea and Starburys undoubtedly are making a difference to how people think about the sneaker business.

Hood Rating: 5/5

Hippy Rating: 3/5


Fan sneakers

FAN is a new sneaker from London-based graduate Lusea Warner, who created the brand as part of her final project for Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. Made entirely from old plastic bags, the shoes have the texture of leather, but breathe like they were canvas.

Warner’s intention is to bring the green movement to the forefront of urban culture. Looking like a wrinkled Chuck, the new-rave influence on the design is obvious, and they are apparently finding favor with skater friends of Warner’s too. More granola than grimy, but a definitely a step in the right direction.

Hood Rating: 3/5

Hippy Rating: 4/5

Simple ecoSNEAKS

simple eco sneaks

“Just because a shoe is planet-friendly doesn’t mean that it has to look like a hippie clod-hopper” says Simple’s website. Amen to that. With all-organic cotton canvas uppers and linings, soles made from old car tyres and 100% post consumer paper pulp foot forms (whatever they are), the range of shoes mange pack a mean crunch and come correct with some nice designs.

Hood Rating: 3/5

Hippy Rating: 4/5

10 Industries Being Transformed by Pirates (For The Better)

Piracy is usually seen as a problem, but in many cases, it is also offering us some solutions. From western movies to, erm, wooly mammoths, both illegal piracy and legal free substitutes are creating Pirate’s Dilemmas, challenging the conventional ways we share information and improving how we do things as a result…

mammoth pirate


1. The Drug Industry

How are pharmaceutical giants supposed to enforce patents on life-saving drugs that combat HIV and Malaria in developing countries, when those drugs can retail for up to $27 a day, and many of the billions of people who need them earn less than $1 a day?

The short answer is they can’t. India ignored such laws for decades, producing generic knock-offs of patented drugs up until 2005 (not to mention also copying patented pesticides). As a result, life expectancy went up from 40 years in 1970 to 64 years today. In Brazil, Argentina, Thailand, Egypt and China, private and state run enterprises are also ignoring international patent laws and producing illegal generic versions to keep their populations healthy. Western drug companies maybe losing out, but millions of lives are being saved as a result.

The longer answer is the pharmaceutical companies probably shouldn’t be trying to enforce these unworkable laws in the first place. Many think there is another way – most notably perhaps is Nobel prize-winning economist and former head of the World Bank Joseph Stiglitz, who thinks we could put together a prize system as an alternative to the patent system, which would allow developing countries access to cheap drugs, and allow the pharmaceutical companies to make money. When pirates enter a market, they highlight market failures and create debate about how to correct them. This particular debate is likely to rumble on for some time…

2. The Movie Business

Hollywood was founded by pirates who didn’t want to pay Edison a licensing fee for using his film projector (his New York lawyers couldn’t reach them easily out in the then still-pretty-wild West), but pirates are still upsetting the apple-cart there today. As piracy persists, Hollywood’s default position has been to fight venomously, which is understandable. But some filmmakers think the pirates are trying to tell them something, and are instead addressing the problem by releasing their films simultaneously in theatres and on DVD at the same time.

The simultaneous release debate is a classic Pirate’s Dilemma – on the one hand you have directors like M. Night Shyamalan who believe movies will lose their magic if they are not shown in theaters, and has called the idea “heartless and soulless and disrespectful.” On the other you have those such as Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, who released his film Bubble simultaneously in theaters and on DVD in 2006, and Michael Winterbottom, who released The Road to Guantanamo the same way, the same year.

Hollywood should probably try and monetize this market before they lose the opportunity to do so altogether. Movie theaters are selling one kind of specific experience, but DVD pirates are selling another. If someone is not willing to pay $10 for a movie ticket, but will pay $5 to watch a bad quality pirate copy, they might be persuaded to pay $10 for a good copy too. But the opportunity to legitimize this market won’t be here forever – DVD pirates are now complaining that movie downloading is eating into their business. Soon it’s going to be just as easy and quick to download films as it is music, and we all know how that story ends. Disney CEO Robert Iger summed the situation up nicely in 2005: “We can’t stand in the way and we can’t allow tradition to stand in the way of where the consumer can go or wants to go.”

3. The Law

A Pirate’s Dilemma is not just caused by piracy, but also by free substitutes such as open source software – something that is happening to more and more industries. Law Underground is a non-profit legal information project revolutionizing how the legal industry works. Hit the site and answer a few questions about your legal problem. Using a mix of collective and artificial intelligence, the site will generate a solution based on sound legal advice. It’s not done with pirate copies of lawyers, but the real thing – lawyers and law students contribute content and knowledge, and anyone can use the site to find answers, for free. “Around the world, legal information is generally available in proportion to a person’s economic resources,” says the site, “which means that often those who need it the most have the least access to it. Our belief is that rights that one has to pay to learn about are not rights, but privileges. Law Underground’s objective is to provide free access to legal information through collaborative web resources.” Paul Hastings probably isn’t going to go out of business anytime soon because of the project, but many people who can’t afford lawyers are and will continue to benefit. Law Underground believes legal information wants to be free, but they also know customized legal information wants to be expensive, which is why you can also use their technology for commercial purposes. This is a great resource that deserves (and is getting) the support of the legal community.


4. Doctors

Free substitutes are also helping the healthcare industry become more efficient here in the West. Your resident pirate doctor is Dr Google. Researchers from Princess Alexandra Hospital, Brisbane, Australia found that 58% of the time, Google is as a good source for doctors to use to diagnose difficult cases. While those odds don’t sound great, when you consider how many people are killed by doctors every year in the U.S., it’s got to be a good thing Google is giving them a helping hand.

More help is on the way too – both Google and Microsoft are currently making plans to jump into the healthcare business next year. We may or may not see Universal Healthcare happen in the U.S., but socially networked healthcare is another matter entirely.

5. The Music Industry

Many artists, record execs and fans have always believed downloading was the best thing that could have happened to the music business, but recently Sellaband has started to use the power of fans and downloading to re-shape the business in very different way. The company’s tagline line is “you are the record company,” and that pretty much sums it up.

Bands log on to Sellaband and upload their demo songs, and fans can invest in them (each fan can invest $10 or more). Once that band has $10 from 5,000 fans, they have $50,000, and the money is invested into hiring top A&Rs, producers and studio time so the band can make a killer record. Once the CD is produced, each fan that invested gets a special limited edition copy. Then retail copies and downloads go on sale, and the fans, the band and Sellaband split the profits three ways. Try walking into one of the majors and asking for 33.3% of the profits.

The first half of this decade saw the major music industry nosedive because of piracy, but now real improvements are happening, and it looks like the industry is being democratized. Selllaband has been a huge hit so far in Europe, expect to see more labels like it very soon – unless of course, Elton John gets his way and they close down the Internet altogether.

6. Phone Companies

Skype and the idea of free calls via Wi-Fi have been scaring the bejesus out of the telecommunications industry for a while. Wi-Fi was the evil digital-communist scourge that was threatening to eat the industry alive. But some now see the threat as an opportunity, and it doesn’t look quite so bad after all. T-mobile was the first national carrier to take the plunge into Wi-Fi with their @home service. You pay an extra $10 a month on top of a regular voice plan, and your phone switches to Wi-Fi whenever you’re near a “hot-spot.” They also throw in a Wi-Fi box for you to make free calls at home.

But the big news in this sector will be the Google phone, which so far has proved more elusive than the Loch Ness Monster. Will it be free calls supported by ads? Will the major telcos work with Google? Will the phone turn into a robot? Or will Google go it alone on its own free wireless spectrum (Google recently said they were willing to spend up to $4.6 billion on such a spectrum in a Federal Communications Commission Auction). If Google is looking at this opportunity, it’s likely others are as well. Nobody knows for sure yet what the deal is, but this will very likely be on of the biggest stories of 2008.

7. Body Parts

The age of silicone breast implants maybe coming to an end, and may be the harbinger of a number of other biological innovations, thanks to a technique not unlike file sharing. A new process pioneered in Japan allows women to use stem cells from butt fat to grow natural breast implants, which feel and look more natural because fat grown from stem cells allow fat cells to create their own blood supply. Stem cells can be used to rebuild cells anywhere else in the body. According to The London Times, the method can be use to regenerate breast after cancer surgery, repair damaged hearts and even repair facial disfigurements.

If we can copy cells like mp3 files, shouldn’t someone be building a biological Napster?

8. Energy

With wars over oil, global warming and spiking gas prices, the number of people going off the grid and home-brewing their own energy is only going to go up and up. But the backlash from utility companies has already begun. Last month Gore Vidal claimed the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power very publicly invaded his home of and ripped his newly installed solar power system to pieces. As solar and wind become larger concerns, decentralized concerns at that, except to see many energy companies doing the right thing and investing appropriately and responsibly, but at least one or two acting like they are record labels suing The Pirate Bay. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, if your business model revolves around suing people for doing something more efficiently than you are, then you no longer have a business model.

9. Education

Education, like legal advice, has long been a privilege. But thanks to initiatives like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, it’s now possible to get a world class education for free, from anywhere on the planet. Like many of the innovations discussed here, this is but the first step of a thousand-mile journey, but the goal of making an ivy-league education available to everyone on the planet is a noble one. Couple that with the potential of the $100 laptop, and that goal seems a little bit closer, and the implications of getting just a little of the way there are staggering.

10. Wooly Mammoths?!?

When a Siberian reindeer herder found a mummified baby wooly mammoth in May of this year, the science community went bananas at the prospect of cloning and copying new pirated mammoths from the DNA, á la Jurassic Park. But while science would like to pirate Mammoths with the best intentions, another band of pirates is ripping off mammoth specimens before intrepid scientists can reach them.

Mammoth hair trades for $50 an inch. Meanwhile mammoth skin, ivory, and mummified body parts are also changing hands for ever-larger sums of money. On top of all the rampant piracy affecting mammoths, Russia is also claiming any and all mammoth remains found are the property of the Russian government, so copying one would technically be illegal without the Russian’s permission. When scarcity is non-existent, as it is in the case of music files, piracy can be a problem (but also a solution). But when scarcity really is a mammoth problem, as it is in the case of mammoth remains, piracy really is a solution worth considering.

“You’re so much more successful if you don’t fall in love with your own ideas”

Jones Soda

Jonesing for originality isn’t always the way forward when you’re trying to start something truly unique. Increasingly companies have been picking up on this, instead using the remix to build new products and attract new customers. Nike, Puma and Timberland will let you remix your own sneakers online, which they will then produce and have delivered direct to your door. Toyota launched the Scion, the first car designed to be customized (enlisting seasoned remixers such as Prince Paul to help promote it) and Coca-Cola came up with Sprite Remix, which came complete with a branded website that allows you to create and mix your own tunes online.

But all that stuff was just foreplay. It’s not about associating your brand with hip-hop sensibilities or giving the consumer a few more options. The truly innovative are those getting into bed with their consumers, tapping their brains for new creative content and directly involving them in the production process.

Peter van Stolk, a 40 year-old former ski-instructor from Canada, found this out back in 1996 when he was in the process of creating a new soda. He needed labels for his Jones Soda soft drink brand, that he sold mostly through snowboarding stores and tattoo parlors, so he asked the (then) small online community that populated his website to send him some photographs. Apparently people like it when you ask for their help. 4,372 of the one million photos he received were used as labels, and suddenly his soda was the most collectable thing since the Garbage Pail Kids. Van Stolk realized that marketing was no longer about messages, but conversations, but he also realized that this applied to every other aspect of his business.

As well as letting customers design their labels, Jones Soda also invites them to come up with new flavors, which are then rated and reviewed by other fans, and the most popular are mass produced. Van Stolk has sold hundreds of million bottles of soda, thanks in part to corporate collaborations with Starbucks and Target, but also because customers are allowed to collaborate too, remixing Jones Soda into exactly what they want (you can create your own 12 pack of MyJones personalized sodas, with your own personalized labels and bottle caps). Revenue rose from $2.4 million in 1997 to $39 million in 2006. “Focus groups are junk,” Van Stolk told Business Week. “They only justify what you want to believe is true… You’re so much more successful if you don’t fall in love with your own ideas.”


The Pirate’s Dilemma - icon by Ji Lee

Welcome to The Pirate’s Dilemma. This is where I’ll be documenting all I can about the subject matter of my forthcoming book – which deals with the many and varied ways people and organizations are responding to problems (and solutions) presented by piracy, and other unconventional ways to share information.

In the book I address the questions piracy is raising using the history of different music scenes and youth cultures. I do this for two reasons. Youth culture has always been my comfort zone as a writer, which is why I knew a lot of the stories which I apply to the problem of piracy, but most importantly I do this because I think youth cultures act, as William Gibson once put it, as social experiments – places where new ideas can be tried and tested before they are applied to the wider world.

Youth cultures are incubators for great ideas. The kind of ideas I’ll be covering in this blog.

E-mail It