Piracy: A Desire, Promise, and Threat.

On: March 19, 2013
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About Matthew Elworthy
BA Communications graduate (University of Leeds), part-time CMS (content management system) operator, and full-time New Media & Digital Culture MA student at the University of Amsterdam.


Today marks the tenth and final day of the Austin based multimedia festival South By Southwest. Running for more than 25 years, the festival is renowned for it’s huge number of performing artists, variety in content (from music, to film, to tech conferences), and revenue. Collectively, SXSW produces more revenue for the Austin, Texas economy than any other event, pumping in roughly $167 million in 2011. But despite this huge figure of legal wealth related with the event, SXSW is also an interesting entry point for understanding some of the changes being brought about by the illegal act of piracy.

Torrentfreak reports that, for the ninth year in a row, the festival has been providing ‘DRM-free, RIAA-safe songs of performing artists’ available for sharing using BitTorrent. This year, the festival offered up 7.93 GB of free music. Since the scheme started in 2005, SXSW have made available more than 45 GB of music, all of which can still be legally sourced in torrent format. Such a move provides a useful opportunity to analyse the impact that pirating — most commonly seen occurring via the same P2P, BitTorrent protocol — has had on contemporary society and culture in general. As one of torrentfreak’s readers points out:


 I doubt they would’ve considered releasing this music for free if piracy was unpopular and if their target demographic didn’t view sharing exceptionally favorably.


The process of pirating, that is, of using or reproducing another’s work, has undeniably worked to bring about sociopolitical change in many ways, since the term was first endowed with this specific meaning. In fact, to briefly summarise a historical example of this in the words of Adrian Johns, ‘no piracy, we might say, no Enlightenment’ (50). Whilst an international music festival offering music for free using a P2P file-sharing service is hardly the Enlightenment, it does demonstrate a changing attitude towards the technology involved. In fact, Twitter, Facebook, and even the British Government have made use of the file-sharing system in recent years, in order to take advantage of the distributed data storage it enables. What is important about this is that, as P2P networks continue to be legitimised in their use, productive debate on the topic of the piracy such networks enable could hopefully flourish.


At this time, however, piracy’s relationship to sociopolitical change in the contemporary world is a varied one. As the cause of a number of attempted acts of law, such as PIPA, ACTA, and  SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), it would be reasonable to argue that piracy is indirectly threatening many of the aspects of freedom enjoyed by Internet users. However, such a claim would ignore the other side of the coin, namely that the real threat to these freedoms is not the act of piracy, but rather the greed of huge organisational bodies and their prospective parts, such as the RIAA and MPAA. In fact, critics have recently accused these organisations of lying about their loss of revenue to privacy, even revealing that the RIAA had spent $17 million dollars on legal fees in a single year. As Ravi Sundaram, in Revisiting the Pirate Kingdom highlights; piracy has caused a ‘novel’ form of panic for the media industry, in that it:


suggested not just a permanent loss of space and corporate markets for the industry, but also a model of dispersal where ‘distribution’ took on a productive form. Distributor pirates also produced more media, piracy bred further piracy. This was a breakdown of cultural management impossible for the industry to fathom — even to this day.



Yet, this same breakdown that Sundaram refers to, is also often the site of continuing radical hyperactivity within less-developed countries, as their potential for participating in the immediate nature of international consumer culture has gradually improved and increased. Liang posits that the increase in access to the flows of information in the West has not been caused by ‘radical revolution’ such as free software or open content, but through the increased availability to standardised mainstream commodities such as those produced by Microsoft and Hollywood (366). However, the same cannot be said for nations such as India, where Sundaram has traced the continuing proliferation of devices and content to a predominantly pirate market. Starting with the video and audio cassette boom of the ‘80s, Sundaram highlights that the act of piracy using these technologies ‘marked new parasitic media geographies, a vast spatial expansion of media life … the cassette era opened up a new phase in Indian media history’ (340).


Not only has the act of piracy enabled access to large wealths of media for ‘subaltern’ populations (341), but it has confronted the very notion of the authority of knowledge, of the ‘original’ and ‘copy’, throughout it’s history. From the complex mutations to mainstream film/audio releases that have been taking place in Asia since the ‘80s (342), to the unofficial sequels and textual adjustments of Grub Street during the earliest days of the book depicted by Adrian Johns, piracy has been the causal structure for debate on such topics. What is worrying however, is that Johns also demonstrates that  questioning the nature of authorship and knowledge are not unique to the digital era, tracing many of the elements of discussion we see on the topic today, back to philosophers such as Condorcet and Kant (52-54). Therefore, whilst piracy may be a force for sociopolitical change, it may be a force that we are unable to harness. Liang posits that this could at least in part be attributed to the nature of what is consumed and circulated illegally, with the practices (of pirating) ‘guided not as much by necessity as by curiosity’, remaining firmly outside the debate on the public domain within existing scholarship (368). Accordingly, we must start to ask some serious questions about the nature of knowledge and information. Does the consumption of information illegally, become an act of greed when the consumption is driven by a desire for pleasure?



Adrian Johns, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009, pp. 1-56.

Ravi Sundaram, ‘Revisiting the Pirate Kingdom’, Third Text 23.3 (2009): 335-345.

Lawrence Liang, ‘Beyond Representation: The Figure of the Pirate’, in Gaëlle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski (eds) Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property, New York: Zone, 2010, pp. 353-375.

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