Playing the Piracy Card: An Interview with Aram Sinnreich (Part One)

Few topics generate such instant division in this town as the issue of media piracy. Half of my friends are deeply concerned that unauthorized use of media content is closing down opportunities for creative artists and the other half believe that the efforts to combat piracy are having a devastating impact on long-standing principles of fair use. Aram Sinnreich’s new book, The Piracy Crusade: How the Music Industry’s War on Sharing Destroys Markets and Erodes Civil Liberties plunges right into the center of that controversy, situating the current debate in a larger historical context. I had thought I had read and learned what I could around this question over the past decade plus of post-Napster analysis but Sinnreich took me to some new places and raises a number of important insights. You will get a taste for his perspective in the interview that follows.

I interviewed the author in 2010 when his previous book, Mashed Up: Music, Technology, and the Rise of Configurable Culture, came out. You can read that interview here. I wrote at the time, “The book deftly deals with the contradictory ways we think about the legal and aesthetic status of music which builds on borrowed materials, the ways that musicians are making sense of their indebtedness to earlier works, and the ways that audiences are making sense of the emerging practices of music production and distribution in a digital era.” His new book picks up where that one left off, updating his assessment of the ways that debates around intellectual property are impacting contemporary music-making– once again helping us to understand his topic from multiple angles, while leaving little question of where his own sympathies lie.

Let’s start with two words which are fundamental to the book’s project — “Piracy” and “Crusade.” Both are highly loaded, some would say inflamed, words, which give the debate around music downloading much of its moral charge. So, break them down for us. How are you using them here? What has been their history? How did they enter this debate?

I spend a fair amount of the Introduction and first chapter addressing this question. As it turns out, long before it was applied to intellectual property, the fundamental premise of “piracy” was highly politicized, and used cynically as a rhetorical tool and as a justification for political and military intervention into the commercial sphere (for an even more thorough treatment of this history, check out the excellent books by Daniel Heller-Roazen and Adrian Johns).

The concept of piracy relies on the delegitimization of certain actors, relegating them to the status of “pirates” in order to justify violence against them and to contest their claims of ownership over goods. By contrast, “privateers” who engaged in identical behavior (e.g. intercepting ships and seizing the goods they carried) operated under the aegis of sovereign states and were thus understood as not only legitimate but essential to promoting said state’s economic interests. Needless to say, in many historical cases, much like today, one person’s “pirate” was another’s champion.

One thing I learned from Johns is that the mantle of “piracy” as applied to information not only predates copyright and intellectual property laws, but was actually deliberately employed by early book publishers as a rhetorical conceit to justify their call for such laws to be passed. In other words, piracy didn’t arise in response to IP; to the contrary, IP was created in order to counter the phantom threat of piracy. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I use the term in the book’s title, and throughout the book, precisely in order to bring attention to the artifice behind this conceit. Today, as the result of a sustained, multi-century propaganda campaign by information oligopolists (e.g. record labels, print and software publishers, film studios), the conceit has taken root in public consciousness, and many of us take it for granted that sharing information without permission from rights holders is an act of piracy, plain and simple. I can’t critique this conceit without invoking it, but I do so very deliberately and carefully. Incidentally, copyleft pioneer Richard M. Stallman read some early chapter drafts, and adamantly disagreed with this tactic; to him, even using the term in a critical way gives it more strength and legitimacy. I appreciate his position, but I ultimately opted to use the term critically rather than to pretend it doesn’t exist.

As to the word “crusade,” I’ll admit that it’s a bit of a rhetorical flourish, but certainly not a novel one; according to a rudimentary Google search, it’s been used millions of times in reference to the music industry’s antipiracy efforts. And if you dig a little deeper, the reason for this becomes clear; a crusade is by definition an act of coordinated aggression draped in the mantle of righteous dogma, shaded with colonialist, or at least expansionist, overtones. In the introduction to the book, I offer a capsule history of the siege of Mahdia by the Genoese in 1390, and as I hope I demonstrate, the number of parallels to today’s “copyfight” are truly staggering.

Those of us who question current copyright regimes are often asked whether we would give our own content away for free. You have, in fact, taken some important steps to broaden access to this book. What are they and why have you taken those extra steps?

First of all, when I pitched this book to my publishers at University of Massachusetts Press, I asked them to release the full text under a Creative Commons license, which allows noncommercial redistribution without permission or payment. I’m not the first academic author to do this, but it was a new step for UMP, and I’m gratified that they trusted me enough try it out.

Once I had the CC license in place, I was free to share the text as I saw fit. I decided to post a live draft of the book manuscript as I wrote it; each day, another 300-1,200 words would be “published” to a blog site for the book hosted by MediaCommons Press. This turned out to be a great decision, because not only did I get thousands of readers before I completed the manuscript, but the scores of substantive comments I received via the site and via email allowed me to improve the book significantly. In a sense, the paperback/ebook version is the second edition. And while I’m the nominal author, each of the commenters played a role in shaping the text. All of the non-anonymous ones get a shout-out in the book’s Acknowledgments section. The first draft is still up at MediaCommons Press, in case anyone’s geeky enough to want to compare versions.

The CC license also means that the book’s finished version is available freely to anyone who wants to read it. Again, UMP went out on a limb for me and provided me with a fully laid-out PDF a few months after it was published in paperback and ebook formats. The file sharing software company Vuze contacted me and offered to put together a “bundle” for the book, which includes both the full PDF and three videos of talks I’ve given on the subject, then seeded the bundle to BitTorrent and promoted it to their users. No money changed hands. In the first two weeks after the bundle launched, the torrent file was downloaded over 50,000 times and my Amazon author rank climbed precipitously, from a summer doldrums low of 350,000 to about 69,000. Today, almost two months after the launch, well over a thousand peers are sharing the bundle at any given point in time, and my sales rank has continued an upward trend.

As to the “why” part of your question: First of all, given the book’s general thrust, I would have felt like a hypocrite if I hadn’t released the book freely online. Second, I genuinely believed it would improve my sales, and it seems to have done just that. Third, I want as many people to read the book as possible – both because I hope it will have an impact on policy and the overall conversation about IP, and because I believe people should have access to information that’s vital to their wellbeing. Finally, as you suggest in your question, I’m frequently challenged by critics who, believing I lack the courage of my convictions, challenge me to distribute my own work freely, and I love to see the look on their faces when I tell them I’ve done just that.

Throughout much of human history, one could make the case that music was understood in terms of the relationships which it facilitated — the communities it helped to bring together, the rituals it enhanced — and not the products it produced. Yet, having turned music into an industry rather than a social practice, is there anyway back? Is the music industry “too big to fail”?

No, I don’t think there’s a way back, but I do believe in a way forward. I devote some time in both The Piracy Crusade and in my previous book, Mashed Up, to exploring music’s pre-commodity past not because I want to eradicate it from the marketplace but because I think we need to appreciate its full role in human culture and consciousness, of which the market is only one small facet. As long as there is a marketplace, I’m confident that music will continue to be a commodity, because that’s precisely the role that music always plays – as a microcosm for larger social processes and a vector for social imagination. As long as there’s a church, there will be church music, and as long as there is a military, there will be military music, etc. etc.

All that being said, I don’t think at the music industry as we currently conceive of it (major labels and publishers, broadcasting cartels, etc.) is “too big to fail” in the same way the banks are. Without the banking system, we wouldn’t have credit or currency; without labels, publishers and broadcasters, we’d still have a thriving musical culture, though perhaps not a national or global “pop” culture. Any student of media history knows that the titans of the previous century are often humbled or eradicated in the next; there’s no conceivable reason that the same fate couldn’t befall a company like Universal Music Group or Clear Channel – though neither really needs to worry in the near term, as they’re both aggressively pursuing transitional distribution platforms and business models.


Aram Sinnreich is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University, in the
Department of Journalism & Media Studies. His work focuses on the
intersection of culture, law and technology, with an emphasis on
emerging media and music. He is the author of two books, Mashed Up
(2010), and The Piracy Crusade (2013), and has written for publications
including the New York Times, Billboard and Wired. Prior to Rutgers,
Sinnreich served as Director at media innovation lab OMD Ignition
Factory, Managing Partner of media/tech consultancy Radar Research,
Visiting Professor at NYU Steinhardt, and Senior Analyst at Jupiter
Research. He is also a bassist and composer, and has played with groups
and artists including progressive soul band Brave New Girl,
dub-and-bass collective Dubistry, Agent 99, King Django, and Ari-Up,
lead singer of the Slits. Sinnreich holds a Ph.D. in Communication from
the University of Southern California, and a master’s in Journalism from
Columbia University.