Pirate LogoThe Pirate's Dilemma

Q & A

What is the Pirate’s Dilemma?

It’s a problem people from all walks of life are facing, and responding to in very different ways. It has to do with how piracy, technology and some subversive ideas continue to change the way we use information and think about the world. From struggling musicians to CEOs, millions of people are confused as to whether piracy should be treated as a problem, or a solution. When pirates start competing with us, do we throw lawsuits at them, or do we try to match them play for play? To compete or not to compete – that is the question – that is the Pirate’s Dilemma.

The Information Age has hit puberty and is experiencing growing pains. From downloading to remix culture, all of us are learning to share and interpret information in new ways, and finding out it doesn’t work in quite the same way as the physical things we traded in the Industrial Age. I think the answer to the Pirate’s Dilemma lies in our own teenage years. In the book, I connect the dots between our collective future and youth culture’s checkered past, to illustrate how a handful of seemingly random absurdities inspired some of our most important innovations. Behind youth movements familiar to us are radical ideas about how we can compete, collaborate and coexist in environments where old assumptions about how we treat information do not hold – ideas that we all now need to understand.

Why the focus on youth culture specifically?

Because this is where new ideas about how we operate as a society happen first. I believe youth cultures act as social experiments, quirky beta versions of mainstream culture where radical concepts can be tried and tested within the confines of scenes, sounds and subcultures. Some of these ideas lead to nothing more than a new dance or fashion craze, but over the years, other ideas have made so much sense to us, they eventually take over the mainstream too.

The personal computer, for example, was a by-product of 1960s counterculture, as was the open-source movement. One punk on New York’s Lower East Side changed the world with his haircut. The birth of the remix, which evolved out of the reggae, disco and hip-hop scenes, ushered in a new era of mass customization in countless industries. Youth culture is the place we can find answers about how to compete and survive when information is not bound by nineteenth-century intellectual property laws, because this is the place many of the ideas now changing the world originated.

So I only need to worry about the Pirate’s Dilemma if I run a record label or work in Hollywood right?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Everybody needs to think about this subject – the Pirate’s Dilemma is not just about downloading media. It is affecting everything from healthcare to education to how we consume and interpret the news. While pirates of all stripes are destroying some old systems, others are actually creating better ones, and it’s down to all of us as a society to decide what to do about this. Many people think new ways to share information are hurting businesses, and that we need to stamp pirates out entirely. I argue that this isn’t always the case.

Sometimes when pirates begin creating new markets outside of the law, history shows us that it’s better for society if these new innovations are legitimized. But there isn’t one right or wrong answer. The Pirate’s Dilemma is something each individual and organization needs to approach from their own perspective.

In future this problem is only going to get bigger. Information itself is beginning to manifest in the physical world and so are the Pirate’s Dilemmas that come with it. New technologies such as 3-D printing mean in a decade’s time, or perhaps less, Nike might have to worry just as much about kids downloading sneakers as Sony do about kids downloading music.

So if you’re saying this is a dilemma that could affect all of us, are we then all potentially pirates?

The way we use these new ideas and technologies is changing faster than our laws can keep up, and doing something as simple as making a photocopy or recording your favorite TV show can technically make you a pirate in the eyes of the law. The Pirate’s Dilemma isn’t just about how we respond to pirates downloading or copying whatever it is we make or sell, it’s also about how we respond to new laws and restrictions taking away freedoms we have long enjoyed, laws which increasingly making it harder for us to build new businesses and organizations. In the book I never use the term ‘pirate’ negatively, I see many pirates as innovators and in some cases, defenders of democracy that should be celebrated and encouraged.

I called the book ‘The Pirate’s Dilemma’ and not ‘The Pirate Dilemma,’ because I see no difference between us and them. Illegal pirates, legitimate companies, and law-abiding citizens are now all in the same space, working out how to share and control information in new ways. The Pirate’s Dilemma is not just about how we compete against pirates, and how we treat them, it’s also about how we can become better by recognizing the pirate within ourselves.

You mentioned that you use Game Theory to explain this problem?

I studied Economics and Economic History at The University of Bristol, but had never used my degree in any practical way in my career before. The reason the title ‘The Pirate’s Dilemma’ made so much sense to me (my buddy Frans came up with it) was because as soon as I heard it, I began to think of the problem as a Prisoner’s Dilemma. I don’t get into any heavy econometrics, but when companies are working out how to respond to pirates, and if they should compete with them, it often seems that they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. But it’s not a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma – companies who compete will always be a better off in the long term than those acting only in their own self interest to preserve the old business model.

If pirates are in a market place long term, what they’ve actually done is created a new space – a new business model. If a legitimate company’s only response to this is protesting with lawsuits and persecuting their customers, the real problem is that they no longer have a competitive business model. It only makes sense for those companies to learn to compete with pirates in this new space, or risk going out of business altogether. Persecution of your customers and refusing to work in the newly created space is unsustainable – the demise of the music industry has proven that.

How did you come up with the idea for the book?

I grew up in London obsessed with youth culture, and was a DJ on a few of the pirate radio stations that created and nurtured so much great music in the city. For me it was always fascinating how this system worked so well. Consistently, support from pirate DJs would send unknown artists to the top of the pop charts and pave the way for new music scenes to evolve into sustainable industries. We were creating new markets, new cultural spaces. Over the years I worked at some of the world’s best-known ad agencies, media companies and major record labels and saw many good ideas work their way up from the street into the boardroom. As the founding Editor-in-Chief of RWD, I used my experience in both worlds to grow the magazine into the UK’s largest urban music title, and one of the country’s coolest youth brands. In 2004 Gordon Brown asked me to work with him on a campaign to help inspire entrepreneurship amongst other young people in the UK, and Prince Charles presented us with the London Business of the Year award. That made me realize quite how seriously the link between youth culture and innovation was being taken. After moving to New York City in 2005, I realized somebody needed to write a book about all this.

Interview by Pat Parsons
Photo by Jamie-James Medina

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