Medaupload founder Kim Dotcom, who has compared his arrest and prosecution for facilitating filesharing as similar to the civil rights struggle. Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

“Fifteen years of utter bollocks”: how a generation’s freeloading has starved creativity

Arguments for digital piracy are drivel – it's high time we steered away from this cultural cliff, argues author Chris Ruen.

Driving down civilisation road, it takes effort to grapple with the ramifications of our choices along the way. Out of basic self-interest, we often ignore our own effects upon the world. You throw your rubbish out the window as you drive on by, thinking "I’m just one person, so why worry?"

Such was my mentality as a college student during what we might call the Napster Boom, where suddenly recorded music was digitised and transformed into free content via one “file-sharing” service after another. And yes, those are ironic quotation marks. Because describing exploitative digital piracy sites as though they are benign swap-shops where one can ‘share’ ‘files’ is just one of the many kinds of bollocks that pepper this debate.

But I’ll admit that back then, I willingly took part in this free-for-all, as I’m sure many of you did and probably still do, for films software, games and ebooks. Things changed for me when I got a job in a Brooklyn café in the late 2000s. Many of the most respected and critically-praised bands of the day were customers there, but my excitement at getting to know them was dimmed when I realised that rather than enjoying the fruits of their success, they were, well, just as broke as I was - a lowly part-time barista living in a shoddy NY rental.

I was troubled by the knowledge that millions of music fans were freeloading music from these artists without a second thought, and more so that I was one of them, hypocritically claiming to “love” music all the while. Once I realised that the great majority of artists and musicians actually needed their legal rights enforced under copyright just to have the chance to break even, the usual excuses for digital piracy started to look like sophomoric drivel.

It’s true that some of the classic excuses for piracy had their brief moments of seeming credibility. In 2000, when the debate over digital piracy sprung to life, we didn’t have content providers like Spotify or Netflix, much less iTunes. The fact that there were so few legal options for consuming digital content was one of the main rationalisations for taking a soft stance toward piracy. The legitimate digital market was either too inconvenient or nonexistent, and piracy filled in these gaps in the developing web.

But as time went on, the arguments for allowing mass distribution of unlicensed content, offered by activists and bloggers like Cory Doctorow and Mike Masnick, took on some familiarities of the Iraq War. First we were there for WMDs, and then it was to spread democracy, and then it was to simply to honor the soldiers who had fought and died there, before we finally got the hell out.

Similarly, when iTunes and other services for legally purchasing content came to market, dulling the availability argument, apologists for digital piracy advanced one fantastic new rationalisation after another—that artists would actually be helped by their rights getting trampled; that old-timey models like touring and merchandise would magically become a cash cow; that you could solve the whole problem by just letting fans “pay what they want;” that identifying digital black market sites like Megaupload and cutting them off from search results and millions in illicit advertising revenues was an attack on free speech (owner Kim Dotcom even compared his legal plight to the struggles faced by Martin Luther King Jr).

Any desperate excuse was good enough, so long as it justified the original campaign. Otherwise, the people who fought against copyright in this battle would have to confront the fact that they were never carrying the flag for freedom or “openness”, but for aggression, entitlement and selfishness masked by superficial delusions of grandeur.

When made today, the argument that availability is the problem is even more boneheaded. Legal, reasonably priced options for digital content are spreading throughout the globe. Arguably there is also whole new generation of consumers out there who, although they might once have believed the drivel about piracy being OK, have now, like me, realised it is nothing more than stealing. Some of those people have even started bands of their own and had the epiphany about artists’ rights first-hand.

And yet, depressingly, digital piracy continues to grow. A study by NetNames examined the popularity of infringing content in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific regions in January 2013. They found 327 million unique users in these regions seeking infringing content, which represented 25 per cent of all internet users, with over 23 per cent of total bandwidth devoted to infringing content. They found that absolute infringing bandwidth increased by 160 per cent from 2010 to 2012 and the absolute number of users seeking infringing content increased by 10 per cent from 2011 to 2013. More recently, GigaOm reported on an analysis by the “media intelligence startup” TruOptic, which found over 300 million users using BitTorrent alone to download free content each month. Most downloads were coming from developed nations with legal options, like the UK, US and Australia.

So why does freeloading remain so popular?

For one, people are habituated. I was at a party in Manhattan last month when the fact that I hadn’t seen Wayne’s World prompted an attempted intervention.  One of the people in attendance, a lawyer who didn’t seem especially hurting for cash, helpfully suggested "seriously man, just like, torrent it when you get home tonight".

Also, freeloading is easy as hell. I was checking the release date of an album recently, and when I entered its name as a Bing search query, “torrent” popped up after it thanks to autocomplete. Out of curiosity, I clicked through to find a full page of search results for advertising-laced pirate sites that all pointed me to my free unlicensed copy.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking the torrent-indexing websites that popped up in my search results are just rambunctious, boundary-challenging adolescents swapping files with their friends, as Napster disingenuously spun themselves (whilst meanwhile receiving millions in investment and employing copyright protections when it suited them). A report by the Digital Citizens Alliance released earlier this year found that pirate sites took in nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in revenues in 2013, with the largest 30 sites averaging $4.4 million in ad revenues and even the smallest sites pulling in $100,000 annually, all on the backs of uncompensated artists. As these sites need not bother with licensing fees, their profit margins are estimated to range between 80 and 94 per cent.

Piracy may feel like victimless “free culture” to the user, but they are in fact participating in a digital black market. It’s not about information wanting to be free, but rather it’s about exploitative black marketeers and willfully blind tech companies wanting to get rich. They are simply capitalising on loopholes in the regulatory framework. In this sense, mass digital piracy is a symptom of underdevelopment. It’s the Internet Third World, with outdoor markets hawking counterfeit goods and purveyors bribing the local cops to look the other way.

Tech companies will go on skimming profits off the top of this black market until enlightened governments cooperate to squeeze out these illicit profiteers in an effective and transparent manner. As Google’s own Chief Economist Hal Varian has written, "all that is required is the political will to enforce intellectual property rights".

The big question is: how would things look if the illegal free option weren’t as convenient, if the internet took a leap in “development”? Would Hollywood not be quite as dependent upon comic book blockbusters and take a few more chances on new stories? Perhaps American culture wouldn’t be quite as dominant globally, with local creative industries having a better shot at investment and growth to better compete with American film and music? With stable promotional budgets for record labels and studios, a few more daring artistic voices might find an audience, and charge their way onto the pop culture radar, and even change the way some of us think about the world.

It’s only common sense that the devaluation creative industries face is having a sustained negative effect on the investment available for sustainable artistic careers. Through new groups like the Content Creators Coalition, artists have begun to advocate for themselves. But forging an internet that takes individual rights (including privacy), cultural diversity and sustainable progress seriously also requires that consumers get on board.

Especially those, like me, for whom digital freeloading was commonplace, but can now admit that we are all entitled to fair compensation for our work. No one is entitled to nonconsensual ‘free’ labor from artists, or anyone else for that matter. This should not be a controversial proclamation in 2014. The fact that it is greeted with self-righteous indignation from Silicon Valley’s true believers indicates a retrograde, sociopathic mindset that masks itself in self-serving rhetoric of “innovation” and “disruption”. Punching someone in the face and breaking their nose is also “disruptive” and “innovative,” but probably not something we want to incentivise and scale.

Take away the digital black market and, yes, prices for creative work will likely inch up for consumers (especially for those who are used to paying zero). But, just as US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr said of taxes, consider it “the price we pay for civilisation” - a civilisation we hold the collective keys to.

Chris Ruen is the author of Freeloading: How our insatiable appetite for free content is starving creativity (Scribe, £12.99)

ADAM DEAN/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

The marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle