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Archive for December, 2007

2008: Year of the Pirate

Happy New Year

2008 is already looking like a year in which the debate over pirates of all kinds will get even louder:

After resigning as Def Jam Recordings president, Jay-Z maybe about to “pull a Madonna” and compete with piracy by embracing a different business model.

The debate over piracy and IP protections between the West and China will likely be affected by the news that China’s economy is 40% smaller than previously estimated.

The luxury goods business will go on the offensive in a major way as pirates continue to threaten profits.

The wonders of the world will take their first step towards unworkable DRM encryption as Egypt seeks royalties for sphinx knock-offs.

Microsoft will get softer on piracy, worried by the fact that people aren’t even bothering to pirate Vista.

Comic book fans brandished as pirates may find they need another hero.

Like terrorism, piracy will be used as an excuse to stifle free speech but piracy will also continue to be used as a potent form of civil disobedience.

Big media will continue to turn to the government for help with the losing battle that is and always has been the “war on piracy.”

If information really is the “oil of the 21st Century”, then some think next year could be the start of the first all-out war against pirates (and that the pirates will win). Good times!

And of course, the book is out in eight days.

Happy New Year!

The Pirate’s Dilemma on Slideshare

I’ve had a few requests for my slides over the last few months, but because most of them are pictures, they don’t make a lot of sense without audio, so I’ve thrown a six-minute sample of my stump speech up on slideshare as a slidecast. You can watch the whole thing above, download the audio here, and if you like the music bed I made for it, that’s also available here for download under a Creative Commons license.

Steal This Film Part 2

More good stuff from the League of Noble Peers. I especially like how they used the grime scene of an example of the future of music without the music business. Good to see some old friends from London in there… Get the full thing in HD or for your iPod here, and don’t forget to make a donation.

Record Business Still Masquerading as Rabid, Dying Animal

Record business Still Behaving Like Rabid, Dying Animal

There’s a piece in The Washington Post today about the RIAA’s latest ridiculous stance on downloading; now they say it’s illegal to keep a copy of a CD you own on your computer or mp3 player, or as Sony BMG’s chief of litigation put it, copying a song you bought is just “a nice way of saying ‘steals just one copy,’ ” That means in the eyes of the record business, transferring a CD you bought to iTunes, or onto an mp3 player, or onto cassette tape, is against the law.

The RIAA now seems to be enforcing this extreme position, going after a guy in Arizona just for keeping back-up copies of 2,000 songs he owned on CD on his computer. (Edit – Engadget says WaPo is exaggerating) The industry maintains that it “will continue to bring lawsuits” against those who “ignore years of warnings.”

In that case maybe the record business should file a lawsuit against itself, because it’s been ignoring serious warnings for years. Piracy is a market signal. As the article says, “69 percent of teenagers surveyed said they thought it was legal to copy a CD they own and give it to a friend… more than half of current college students download music and movies illegally.” If that’s not a warning that the business has changed, I don’t know what is.

The Post has some good advice on how the record business should respond to Pirate’s Dilemma it faces: “As technologies evolve, old media companies tend not to be the source of the innovation that allows them to survive. Even so, new technologies don’t usually kill off old media: That’s the good news for the recording industry, as for the TV, movie, newspaper and magazine businesses. But for those old media to survive, they must adapt, finding new business models and new, compelling content to offer.”

“What will you do when someone pirates your book?”

Pirate’s Dilemma mock ups

Some Pirate’s Dilemma cover concepts designed by Ji Lee. I really liked the idea of ripping off the covers of successful business books (such as the Freakonomics, The Tipping Point and The Long Tail rip offs pictured) But book stores told us it would create myriad logistical headaches, so we went with the yellow jacket instead, which was no bad thing.

“What will you do when someone pirates your book?”

I get asked this question more than any other when I’m talking to people about The Pirate’s Dilemma. It’s a good question – I’m in the business of selling intellectual property, piracy is something I should be concerned about. On the other hand, it’s also a silly question. I say this for two reasons.

Firstly, I think this misses the point of what The Pirate’s Dilemma is all about (which is fair enough, because not many people have read it yet – but it’s out in 12 days, save those xmas book tokens!). The subtext of this question is the assumption that I argue that all piracy is good, and anyone should be able to pirate anything at anytime, so why should my book be any different? Live by the sword, die by the sword right? But this isn’t the argument I make at all. Yes, pirates can create new markets, signal trends and develop innovative ways to reach new audiences. But the real point of The Pirate’s Dilemma is that piracy is a double-edged sword.

Piracy is often bad, and we should fight pirates when they are not adding any kind of value to society. But if society gets behind pirates, because somehow they are adding value to the way we do things, like creating a new more equitable way for artists to distribute music (Hi, Internet!), or creating a simultaneous-release model in the movie industry (Hi, my local Chinese take-out place! Hello again, Internet) then the only real choice is to compete with pirates, not fight. If there is demand for this new way to do things, and it really is adding value to society, it will happen despite what the law does or doesn’t say. In these cases we should elect to legitimize and legalize the innovation instead of criminalizing it.

The second reason it’s a silly question has more to do with the history of piracy in the book industry. One of the most worrying things about it in the West is there really isn’t very much piracy happening, which should indeed be worrying to publishers because the greater threat, as Tim ‘O Reilly so eloquently put it, is obscurity. Maybe this is because the cost of making a hard pirate copy of a book yourself is higher than buying a bound edition, the cost of printer ink being what it is, and people still prefer hard copies (I expect this will change as better screen densities and things like the Kindle take off).

There isn’t much piracy in the book industry, but authors who do give their works away for free seem to benefit from doing so. One of the world’s most successful marketing and business authors, Seth Godin, did a Radiohead with his incredible book Unleashing the Idea Virus way before the phrase “did a Radiohead” meant anything to anyone. Science Fiction writer and Boing Boing co-editor Cory Doctorow gives all his books away for free. “I’ve been giving away my books ever since my first novel came out” he wrote in Forbes last year, “and boy has it ever made me a bunch of money.”

Books spread ideas and sell authors, but authors don’t just make money from selling books. In fact a lot of, if not most, non-fiction authors make more money selling ideas than they do from selling books. Like the music business, the real money is in the live industry – speaking, consulting and so forth. If people pirate my book, I’m sure my publishers won’t be too happy, but it could very well help sell physical books. It would almost certainly create more “live” opportunities for me.

This isn’t the case for all authors – I do worry piracy could damage the world of fiction where there are less obvious revenue streams for authors, although if there is one thing pirates are good at, it’s eking out less than obvious revenue streams. But in my case the answer to this question is straightforward:

I’m not going to do anything.

I don’t see pirate copies of my book as a problem. My publishers might, and they will do as they see fit, please don’t take this as an invitation to pirate my book, because it isn’t. But while there isn’t any evidence that this would be bad, and some that suggests this might be good, I just can’t see the point in trying to stop it. I assume it will happen at some point because of the subject of the book. That being the case, I’ll be more worried if it isn’t pirated, because I’m competing with 120,000 other books that will be released in 2008. Obscurity is by far the greatest threat here.

The Pirate’s Dilemma on BusinessWeek’s ‘Innovation of the Week’


I did an interview with Reena Jana, the Innovation Editor of BusinessWeek, for their Innovation podcast. We talked about the idea of piracy as an innovation strategy and how illegal copying can inspire new ideas.

Download it or listen to it here and also from iTunes. The rest of the series is really interesting, check out the full list of previous podcasts here.

Antigua becomes pirate paradise as W.T.O. sails into uncharted waters

Pirates of Antigua

Image via PiratesofAntigua.com

It’s not been the greatest week for strengthening national boundaries in the United States. The row over emission standards erupted into a national dispute that could soon become a full-on bar fight between Arnie and the White House. Meanwhile a huge hole, spanning five states, appeared in the middle of the republic as Lakota Nation officially seceded (edit – it seems AFP exaggerated on this a little) from the U.S.

To top it all off, in a bizarre ruling yesterday the World Trade Organization granted Antigua the right to violate U.S. copyright protections on goods like films, software and music. Pirating American stuff is now legal in Antigua by rule of international law, and by extension, it seems piracy could become a powerful foreign policy tool.

As previously reported, the U.S., Antigua and the W.T.O. all took a big gamble on this case. The U.S. bet its intellectual property rights in order to avoid changing its gambling laws. By backing Antigua the W.T.O. risked upsetting the U.S, its most powerful supporter, and Antigua, as the U.S. trade office said yesterday, now runs the risk of ‘severely discouraging foreign investment’ if it exercises its right to piracy.

But the fact that Antigua can now freely distribute $21m worth (how exactly $21m “worth” of piracy will be determined is anyone’s guess – that’s probably only half an Elton John CD by the RIAA’s estimates) of American movies, music and software to the rest of the world may turn out to be a much greater threat to the U.S. than online casinos, especially if The Pirate Bay and co. decide to set up over there.

The W.T.O. ruled that Washington has been illegally blocking foreign online gambling operators from the American market, while allowing domestic companies to operate online betting sites. This completely unrelated paragraph from an Antiguan tour operators website sums up the differences between the U.S. firms and the Antiguan casinos:

“The difference between a pirate and a privateer was that privateers were authorized by the government of their country and did not attack ships from their own country. Pirates harassed and robbed anyone passing by.”

Unfortunately for the U.S., acting like a pirate is much more acceptable under the W.T.O. than acting like a privateer. The W.T.O was set up by the U.S. and other Western countries to dismantle protectionist policies around the world and expand free trade, which has it pros and cons. The big con for smaller developing nations has long been that free trade can end up hurting businesses, democracy and retarding economic growth. But this creates cheap goods and services for the West, so that’s the status quo the W.T.O. was designed to promote.

Only now the tables are turning. The pirate’s in Antigua are trying to promote a free market, while the U.S. is pursuing anti-competitive, anti-capitalist measures to protect their domestic interests. International free trade can only happen in theory when everyone agrees to a common set of rules. For those rules to be worth anything, they need to be enforced with equal measure. Of course in reality, that has never been the case. This ruling is a major blow to international trade agreements because it establishes that piracy can be used, as Mark Mendel, a lawyer representing Antigua put it, as “a very potent weapon.”

When democracy and equitable practices are ignored, pirates have stepped in many times before and created systems that work. The U.S., for example, was only able to industrialize so quickly in the first place because it ignored international patent and copyright laws in order to rip off European inventions and designs wholesale (which was fair enough, because the Europeans were just as corrupt at the time). Now developing nations are using piracy in the same way to level the playing field once again. This case may well, as The New York Times puts it, “set a precedent for other countries to sue the United States for unfair trade practices, potentially opening the door to electronic piracy and other dubious practices around the world.” Uncharted waters indeed…

WIRED gives The Pirate’s Dilemma 9 out of 10

Pirate wired




The series of viral kung-fu shorts we’ve been working on is almost done. Each film depicts a struggle between two characters facing a pirate’s dilemma and fighting over the best way to use a piece of information. Taking inspiration from Streetfighter 2, anime films, Wu Tang videos, J-horror flicks and drug commercials, the films tell stories about copyright, piracy, net neutrality and the potential of 3-D printing.

I’m really excited about these films and what other people will be able to get out of them. As well as making all the films available under a Creative Commons sharealike license, we’ll be uploading twenty clips from each short, plus all the audio as parts, so other people can use them to make new versions, or use them to make entirely different films. The first one should be up in a week or two, then we’ll be releasing one a week after that up until the book is launched.

Fox News with a laugh track

Brilliant! Suddenly it all makes sense…

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