Some of My Best Friends Are Pirates

In mid-September, I went to Singapore to meet with some of our collaborators on the MIT-Singapore GAMBIT games lab and to speak to the Games Convention Asia about "Games as Transmedia Entertainment." In the course of the weekend, I gave an interview to a very thoughtful young reporter from the Philippines Daily Inquirer in which I was asked about the implications of the concept of convergence culture for the developing world. To be honest, I didn't think much more about the interview until some of my comments about "piracy" began to surface in western blogs within the gamer realm. The story spread through news portals focused on Asia to the gamer world, which is often keeping a close eye on developments in the Asian games sector and often gains prestige by being early importers of Asian-produced games before they are legally on offer here in the west. One American blogger even "pirated" one of my portraits, which was doctored to depict me as a pirate. I figured that "pirating" it back is only fair game.

henry pirate.jpg

Indeed, the time lag between the interview appearing in a Manila-based newspaper and its surfacing on western blogs could be counted in a matter of hours, rather than days. At no other time in human history would such a flow of information have been imaginable. In the past, an American academic giving an interview in Singapore would in all likelihood have been locked down in a very localized context. And so in many ways, the circulation of this story demonstrates in pretty powerful ways what I saw as the central thrust of my comments -- that media companies can no longer realistically lock down their content into predictable zones and roll it out on their own time table. The moment content emerges anywhere in the world, it creates a hunger around the planet among potential consumers which will be met illegally if it is not met legally.

When I was in Shanghai last January, I learned a good deal about how fans of popular western programs such as Prison Break operate: within a day of an episode appearing on American television, it has been digitized, translated into various Chinese languages by an army of dedicated fans, and begins circulating throughout the Chinese hinterland and across the Chinese diaspora. In many cases, this is content which would never have been commercially available in China as a result of nationalistic and protectionist policies limiting the amount of American media that can be marketed to their country. And if this content was made available commercially, then few Chinese locals outside of the most wealthy and cosmopolitan cities would be able to afford it. So, in what sense can Hollywood be said to have lost markets that it could not have reached and could not have sold to in the first place?

Yet, it is clear that exposure to American media in the developing world often awakens desires and fantasies that can only be satisfied by more such content; it is part of the process of westernization and modernization which is impacting many sectors in Asia at the present time. A growing number of researchers are finding that these same tendencies are operating in reverse across America and Europe, exposing western consumers to Asian-produced media (Bollywood films, Anime, K-Drama, and the like), and gradually creating viable commercial markets where they didn't exist before. In many cases, those fans who have taken these materials without permission, done the hard work of translating them into English from their original language, taken on responsibility for educating consumers about the contexts from which they came and the conventions under which they operate, have gone a long way to open up markets which would previously have been closed to Asian media producers. Here, "piracy" becomes "promotion."

Does it make sense to refer to such practices as "piracy"? It's a debatable proposition but for the moment, many in the media industries are inclined to think of such consumer practices through a language of copyright theft and piracy. If we adopt that framework, then yes, I think there's a solid case to be made that "pirates" actually expand markets, over time, even if they cause short term "losses" for the initial rights holders. That said: I recognize that not all "piracy" follows such a pattern. There are a significant number of people out there who are exploiting the intellectual properties of others for their own financial gain and there are some who buy these materials because they don't want to pay the price being asked for this content. Nothing we say is going to change this basic dynamic, but the media industries could reduce some forms of "piracy" by better understanding what motivates it and reading it as symptomatic of the marketplace reasserting demand in the face of failures in supply.

For example, should we be surprised that protectionist policies surrounding media imports no longer work effectively in a global networked culture? Whatever gets stopped by customs the border will spread easily online and reach geographically dispersed consumers. Should we be surprised that consumers no longer want to wait to view content that they know is already available in other markets and is being actively discussed by others in their online communities?

For example, relatively few hardcore American fans of Doctor Who or Torchwood are willing to wait the six to nine months it is taking these episodes to cross the Atlantic and get aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. Many of them are seeking online channels, mostly illegal, to gain access to this material in something close to the same time frame as British fans are consuming it. This has not necessarily reduced sales of the DVDS or viewership of the cable airings of this content here, but it has pushed many hardcore fans to step outside of the law in order to access content they would most likely willingly pay to access if it was made available to them in a timely, accessible, and legal manner.

In my heart of hearts, I think most people would prefer to work within legal structures if they are available to them and I'd suggest that the relative success of iTunes in the face of readily available "free" sources for much of this content points to a deep desire to behave "honestly" when media companies do not create strong incentives to behave otherwise.

We can also understand this piracy as part of a breakdown of the moral economy between producers and consumers. Here's what I mean by a moral economy: Underlying all economic transactions are certain social understandings between buyers and sellers that reflect their sense that exchanges are just and fair to both sides. We can call this a moral economy.

When the rules of exchange shift, they are accompanied by certain social disruptions as both sides seek to legitimate their new practices and thus secure a higher ground in the emerging moral economy. We can see the deployment of terms like "piracy" or "sharing" as different bids to legitimate these evolving practices. It's a kind of rhetorical war for moral legitimation, which reflects the fact that both sides want to see themselves as behaving fairly. When there is a perception of unfairness, then there is a much higher likelihood that parties will step outside of established mechanisms and adopt practices which the other side sees as illegitimate. And clearly over the past few years, technological and cultural shifts, not to mention the legal battles that have emerged around them, have gone a long way to undermine the existing moral economy and thus create a crisis of trust between producers and consumers. Until media companies find a way to restore the balance, they are going to find themselves increasingly subject to behaviors which undercut their perceived economic interests and such behaviors are likely to be increasingly labeled as "piracy."

Such "piracy" is a global phenomenon, but it occurs in particularly overt ways in much of the developed world, which has historically been used as a final dumping ground for media goods that have played out in the rest of the world. As more and more young people in the developing world go online, have access to information about such content, and desire stronger connections with their counterparts elsewhere, these inequalities of access to media content becomes more and more frustrating. And "piracy" is emerging as the "great equalizer" to insure they have a chance to participate more fully in our emerging media landscape. Such young people, long term, represent the most likely market for western produced media, and this early, often illegal exposure is part of what will make them a desiring market for such materials over time. Framed in these terms, the debate about "piracy" becomes about short term losses versus long term gains for the media industries.

"Piracy" enters the developing world in another way as well: the production of local knock-offs of western media properties. Consider, for example, almost twenty years of the production and circulation of "Black Bart" T-shirts in intercity and impoverished neighborhoods around the world. These appropriations of The Simpsons have been a source of revenue for the small scale entrepreneurs who produce and sell them and they have been another way of connecting to the larger media franchise. Throughout much of the developing world, the images of western media are being translated into local folk art practices and then sold back to visiting tourists from the West. When I visited Shanghai, for example, I came back with hand-woven Chinese New Year decorations which deployed Mickey Mouse to signify the "year of the rat." Such goods were clearly not authorized or licensed by the Disney corporation. Yet, they represent another way that those in the developing world were attaching themselves to Western media franchises and do represent a form of grassroots convergence.

I am not making a moral argument here. I certainly understand why many media companies would feel that all of this represents a serious threat to their livelihood and that it constitutes another example of how they are "losing control" over their content in a networked culture. All I am arguing is that current inequalities of access to media content and the fraying of the moral economy between producers and consumers work together to create a context where more and more consumers, not only in the developing world but here in the west, are stepping outside of legal mechanisms to acquire access to content. We can call this "piracy" or not. But it will continue to be a reality until the media companies develop a more sophisticated understanding of what factors motivate such behavior and the ways that such practices reflect breakdowns in the market mechanisms surrounding the creative economy.

So, in conclusion, I just want to say "Aargh!"