Jul 30, 2013

The Hollywood Bias on Piracy: A Reply to David Newhoff

After reading a diatribe about my TEDx Talk on piracy written by Hollywood veteran David Newhoff, I felt the need to clarify a few misunderstandings and examine the prejudices that some Hollywood folks seem to have against social scientists interested in piracy. 

Dear David Newhoff,

First of all, thanks for your interest. I skimmed through your blog and noticed that you were repeatedly voicing your fears that the "internet culture" is threatening creativity and endangering the professional careers of musicians and film makers like you. Among other things, you seem to dislike (or be very suspicious of) such organizations as Pandora, Netflix, Spotify, Google, 4Chan, TED, and of such people as Cory Doctorow or Lawrence Lessig (by contrast, you seem quite OK with the existence of the Prism surveillance program). 

Clearly, we have very different viewpoints on the nature of the "internet culture". In particular, you seem to believe that the above-mentioned organizations deprive film makers and musicians of their revenue sources (yet you personally rely quite heavily on YouTube, a service owned by Google, but this is not the least of your contradictions). 

In any case, I just would like to emphasize a business reality that you may be overlooking. According to the MPAA, the largest audience for movies in the US is the 15-25 y.o. age category. Do you know what kind of stuff people between 15 and 25 y.o typically like A LOT? Stuff like Pandora, Netflix, Spotify, Google, 4Chan, and TED. Now, it doesn't take an MBA degree to understand that people who hate everything that their primary customer group really enjoys will have a hard time understanding what these customers really want in order to sell them cultural goods. But you're probably right: when the product doesn't sell, it must be the customer's fault. So let's blame the customers eh! (whom you refer to as 'middle-class punks', 'frat boy style narcissists', 'guinea pigs' or 'puppets', among others). And hey, occasionally, let's sue the customers too, just to remind them who's in charge.

You also seem to be working under the implicit assumption that any film maker or musician has the right to a decent income, and that it is the government's role to design and enforce a legal framework to make this happen. To be honest, I wish we lived in such a world, but the truth is, supply and demand do not always meet, some products are better than others, and not everyone can always be successful - especially not in such high-risk, fast-changing industries as film or music making. To make things even more difficult, there are millions of folks out there who make music or films not to make money but just because they enjoy it (and mobile phone cameras and services like YouTube have made that very easy and virtually costless). In this respect, music and film making are quite different from, say, paper manufacturing (I cannot recall having any high school classmates that were manufacturing paper for fun in their free time).

Now, I took a few minutes to write this because I believe you might have misunderstood a thing or two about the TEDx talk I gave. First, it cannot be more wrong that I “spend sixteen minutes proving one thing:  that piracy is the wrong word for mass, digital copyright infringement.” In fact, I explain quite the opposite: the talk proposes a definition of piracy, and that definition pretty much covers phenomena such as “mass, digital copyright infringement”, which is precisely why I use Megaupload as an example in the talk (or perhaps you were sleeping when I did, at 13’44’’, cf. also the big screen behind me that says “pirate organizations – Megaupload”). Unlike you, however, I do not formulate moral judgments about piracy because this is not my purpose (plus I do not have vested interests in the business). Rather, I try to conceptualize the certain aspects of the debate in order to shed new light on the pirate phenomenon.

You imply that you know a lot about the history of piracy – good for you. For instance, you seem pretty sure that piracy is all about “romance” and “charming rebelliousness”.  Did you know that historically, pirates were the first outlaws to be declared enemies of all humanity, and that piracy inspired the notion of crime against humanity? There's nothing “charming” about this.

In fact, my favorite part in your learned exposé is the following: “I say a Somali pirate, as dangerous a criminal as he may be, is arguably more deserving of our sympathy than a torrent site owner […] As a moral comparison, this is a no-brainer.” Are you aware that, unlike torrent site owners, Somali sea robbers ransom and kill people? (if not, you can still read this). I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be kidnapped by a torrent site owner. 

Don’t worry, I am not easily offended. I even forgive your slightly insulting tone, and I tolerate your disputable moral claims, according to which ransom and murder constitute less of an issue than illegal file-sharing. After all, my only purpose is “to foster dialogue not diatribe”, as a wise man once noted (oh wait, that was David Newhoff!).  

As a token of my good will, I would like to send you a free copy of my book on the history of piracy. But I warn you: it has a lot of pages and is written in small characters, so if you already find it difficult to not massively misinterpret a 16-minute TEDx Talk, I’m not sure reading an entire book is such a great idea. Anyway, think about it and let me know. I have the copy ready to be mailed out to you at the address of your choice (alternatively, you can download it from a torrent site, I promise not to sue you).

I might be a dishonest joker, as you state in your very kind commentary, but as you can see, I’m always open to discuss with people who disagree with me – respectfully and with an open mind if they’re willing to do the same. Clearly, we have very different views on what piracy is and how it affects the society we live in (check this recent Bloomberg article and this CS Monitor op-ed) - but really, it never hurts to keep an open mind.

Piratically yours, 

(and by the way, this is the correct spelling of my name – in case you’re not sure, please copy-paste it in your future blog posts, it doesn’t infringe on copyright)

NB: David Newhoff was kind enough to correct the typo a few days later, but maintains his blatant misinterpretation of the views expressed in the TED talk despite the above quotes. And he wasn't interested in reading the book either despite my kind offer. Well...whatever.

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