Sian's been very naughty

The Beatles, Alex Cox and piracy - our blogger's take on the knotty issue of downloading.

Last week I did a very naughty thing. I downloaded from the internet a short film that was packed full of copyrighted material, stolen from Hollywood, American and Swedish TV news programmes, and even the BBC. It was called ‘Steal this Film – part 1’ and it has been made this year by a group of Swedish internet pirates who are intent on spreading lawlessness throughout the globe.

I don’t know how many of you have heard of The Pirate Bay, but it’s probably a lot more now than had a year ago. I confess happily to being a bit of a nerd, but the issue of file sharing at last seems to be breaking out of geekshire and into the world of mainstream politics, so it seems worth discussing at last.

Steal this Film was made by the organisers of The Pirate Bay and gives a short history of the site, how it grew out of Piratbyrån a campaigning organisation dedicated to the overthrow of copyright laws. So far, so extremely dull, you might think, but the film has a gripping plot centred on the extraordinary raid that was carried out by the Swedish police against the site’s internet servers in May this year. This incident is the reason I could be found watching a group of scandinavian tecchies on a Saturday night.

For the uninitiated, here’s a brief history of the issue. The Pirate Bay is now the most widely used and famous site where people go to find ‘bit torrents’ that allow them to download films, music, art, software (in fact anything that can be stored in digital form) from other people. Torrents don’t include these materials, but tell your computer where to find bits of the file you want on other computers that are sharing them. If you set off a torrent file, it will patiently collect thousands of tiny parts of the desired file from hundreds of different locations, and then neatly put them all back together.

Downloading large files via bittorrent is much quicker than trying to get a whole file from a single user because your computer can simultaneously download different parts from different places. And, as most people who use the service also allow uploading of the parts they already have, the more people who are downloading, the quicker the whole file comes to you.

File sharing in this way became popular after one-to-one sites like Napster were outlawed in the US a few years ago and, initially, many sites offered a bittorrent service - the most popular based in places like Slovenia and Finland. However, after putting all that effort into stopping Napster, music companies and film studios in the USA weren’t going to put up with this new challenge for long. One by one they persuaded governments to outlaw them and the sites closed.

As the alternatives were whittled away, one main site – The Pirate Bay, based in Sweden – carried on. This was allowed to continue only because of the organisers’ determined resistance to legal threats and the protection they had in Swedish law, which still recognises that torrents don’t actually contain any copyrighted material.

Admitting to file-sharing can feel like a bit of a crime to someone in the UK, akin to committing benefit fraud, but in Sweden things are completely different. People there think of it as a human right and the vast majority of young people do it regularly. Steal this Film is full of anxious vox pops with Swedish youth talking about their devotion to file sharing, and one elderly Swede even likens it to ‘the way older people look at lingonberry picking on other people’s land’ (I have no idea what this is, but it sounds lovely).

Not surprising then, that the raid on TPB sparked resentment towards the Swedish government. Protests started spontaneously in Stockholm and attracted thousands of people and the support of the Swedish Young Greens. Rumours circulated that the raid was demanded by US diplomats threatening sanctions against Sweden, and a minister seemed to confirm this on Swedish TV news.

Of course the clampdown backfired. The site was back up within days, and attracted such support and offers of back-up space that another raid would see almost no downtime at all. Personally, I would never have thought about this beyond occasionally using torrents to get hold of impossible-to-find gems, such as the nuclear war films ‘Threads’ and ‘The War Game’, had it not been for the police raid. And there is now even a ‘Pirate Party’ in Sweden, campaigning in elections on an anti-copyright ticket (I’m not sure what the Swedish Greens think about this!).

Hollywood had of course been pressing for something to be done about the Swedish law for ages. With just one country holding out, the nature of the internet means it provides a loop-hole for the entire world. The Motion Picture Association of America claims that internet piracy cost it $7.1 billion in 2005 and produces flashy adverts where James Cameron and Ben Affleck plead with you not to risk the jobs of movie makers by downloading.

But can those claims be true? Would all those people have spent more than $10 on a DVD instead if they couldn’t download a particular film? And where did the lost money go? Unlike when you buy a dodgy DVD off a man in the pub, no one is making a profit out of this. Not sitting in a jacuzzi quaffing champagne in their filmed interviews - instead hanging out in a scruffy bar - none of the organisers of TPB are getting rich off file sharing. So if money can just evaporate into thin air, can it really be described as ‘lost’?

Films are still making plenty of cash for the studios, despite the growth of file sharing, and the music industry’s profits grew healthily in 2005 as the labels took advantage of cash-for-download sites to sell more music than ever.

Historically, similar threats to creative profit have occurred regularly. With the advent of recorded music in the early 20th century, performance musicians staged protests and petitioned governments to stop it. In 1982, Jack Valenti, President of the MPAA told the US House of Representatives, “The VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.” Yet somehow the industry struggled on as every home gained a video recorder, and even made extra cash selling us copies of ‘classic’ films that had stopped making money in theatres years before.

At around this point in ‘Steal this Film’, I’m starting to doubt that copyright should exist at all, clearly influenced by the propaganda effect of the many short clips from epic movies (overlaid with slogans like ‘You can’t outlaw social change’) which the directors have inserted into the film.

Luckily, also at this point, film director Alex Cox appears on the screen, commenting on the industry killer/massive profit opportunity incident with VCRs in the 80s. Alex is a Green Party member and has directed our recent party political broadcasts, so I decided to ask him what he thought.

It turned out he hadn’t known he was in the film at all, the pirate film-makers having stolen the footage from an old episode of The Money Programme - “Good for them,” he said. I asked whether, as a producer of content himself, he wouldn’t object to the abolition of copyright. “It is reasonable to get some exclusivity,” he said, “But the period of copyright is far too long.”

Suggesting that ten years might be a sensible time limit, he told me that the original copyright law of the USA gave artists 14 years, but this has been gradually extended under big business pressure so that now US law protects copyright for longer than anyone who created the work could feasibly stay alive. The so-called ‘Mickey Mouse Protection Act’ of 1998 now allows exclusive rights for a staggering 95 years. We’re not quite there in Europe, with a standard period for most things sticking at 50 years for now (hence Sir Cliff Richard is about to lose the rights to his early hits).

There’s a lot more to this issue, which I’ll try to cover another time but, on balance, I don’t think I want to see copyright abolished altogether. The ten-year term suggested by Alex seems like a sensible compromise. I love seeing films on a massive screen with mad, seat-shaking sound, and I also like watching things with others in a theatre so I don’t really want to see cinemas driven out of business.

But I also don’t see how downloading is harming these businesses at all. Cinemas do of course offer a lot more in their ‘package’ than simply the copyrighted works on show, including a comfy seat, a social venue and (perhaps this is unique to me) the chance to boo at 4x4 adverts in a place where other people might actually hear me.

However, especially with music, I’m inclined to agree that copyright terms should be as short as possible. Doesn’t leaving the control of recorded music in the hands of a few big companies actually restrict choice, variety and innovation in our music? And if established songwriters can now sit back and live off past royalties for decades, wouldn’t they work a bit harder to produce decent new material if they lost that income after a few years?

When we talked about music rights, Alex Cox gave the example of Sir George Martin, who has spent most of his career since the Beatles simply remixing and re-releasing their works, which are some of the most tightly controlled in the world. Wouldn’t the arts world be richer if Sir George had more incentive to discover and work with new bands too?

What is clear is that selling a plastic disc with data on it purely for the value of the data, is not going to last. The creative industries are sooner or later going to have to find new ways to profit from their art, or even (shock!) just profit less and create their works for art’s sake instead.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder