Free as in freedom

Are people freely swapping music, films and other files over the internet undermining corporate control of entertainment and creating a revolutionary culture of sharing and universal access to knowledge? Nick Buxton explores the political edge of the digital piracy and 'free culture' movements

April 20, 2009
11 min read

There isn’t an eyepatch or hook in sight, but three young computer geeks and a businessman have suddenly made piracy very sexy in Sweden. The four founders of a popular file-sharing service called the Pirate Bay became instant underdog cyber-heroes as they took the stand in court in February against US media giants such as Sony and Warner Brothers. The four potentially face up to two years in prison and fines of up to $180,000 if they are found guilty of infringing copyright laws. The verdict is due in April.

Skull-and-crossbones flags fluttered outside the court, every utterance was blogged and twittered and new recruits flooded to the new Pirate Party, which now has more members than the Greens. The contentious website ( continues to taunt the music and film industry with insults and the spectre of lost profits as an estimated 22 million users swap files ranging from U2’s latest album to films such as Slumdog Millionaire.

The entertainment industry is keen to change the image of the Pirate Bay from one of cyber-freedom fighters to one of businessmen (albeit businessmen with unusual facial hair) profiting at the expense of artists. Monique Wadsted, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) representative in Sweden, says file-sharing is simple theft: ‘It’s not a political trial or shutting down a people’s library or one that wants to prohibit file sharing as a technique. It’s a trial regarding four individuals that have conducted a big commercial business, making money out of others by file-sharing copy-protected works.’

Pirate Party founder Rickard Falkvinge sees it differently: ‘The problem is that politicians have chosen not to listen to young people. The music industry is doing everything to prevent the spread of culture. In Sweden we are putting a flag in the ground and uniting to put an end to their lobbying.’

Students for free culture

Sweden isn’t the only place where flags are being put in the ground. A couple of months previously, on the opposite side of the globe, Students for Free Culture held their first national meeting in Berkeley. They consciously chose to hold the meeting at the US university that became renowned for launching the Free Speech Movement, which campaigned against a ban on political activities on campus and sparked a subsequent nationwide wave of student activism in the 1960s.

Students for Free Culture was started by two students in Pennsylvania who received legal threats in 2003 from electronic voting machine manufacturer Diebold for publishing embarrassing internal company emails that revealed serious flaws in its e-voting systems. Diebold was already at the centre of controversy over alleged voting irregularities and its links to the Republicans.

Rather than backing down, the students organised to get the emails published on even more websites and counter-sued the company for abuse of copyright law. The political and media attention forced Diebold to cave in.

‘Like the Free Speech Movement, we are fighting against the top-down control of speech and are motivated by beliefs about basic rights. The differences are in our ability to organise electronically – our Mario Savio [one of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement] is more likely to inspire with a blog post than with a speech,’ says Berkeley student Alex Kozak, one of the organisers.

The national meeting at Berkeley – billed as an ‘unconference’ – committed itself to fight for open access to university research and the use of free and open software within universities, and to push for free licensing of any university patents related to health or software. It also promised to continue to pick fights with any attempts to control the open nature of the internet and to take on corporations that try to quash artistic creativity and free speech with lawsuits.

Mayo Fuster Morell, a Catalan activist and researcher on digital issues, believes that ‘the movement has a high level of commitment and clear ideas. It is not possible to reverse what they want to do. The goal of universal access to knowledge is hugely motivating and linked with other social movements will have a huge impact.’

Growing up digital

Throughout the world, the experience of ‘growing up digital’, as technology writer Don Tapscott calls it, has created a pattern of behaviour and cooperation that undermines corporate control of culture, without even necessarily meaning to. ‘It is part of the identity of my generation to create and share content on large social networks, organise events online and share with each other our favourite music and movies, sometimes legally and sometimes not,’ says Alex Kozak. ‘This behaviour has lead to an unconscious dedication to the culture of sharing.’

Sharing albums via the internet or in person, editing music and TV footage for YouTube videos or mixing tracks to produce one’s own music is part of the everyday experience of most young people. The internet has also facilitated the emergence of communities that have the tools to collaborate across borders and produce software, music and films that previously could only be made by resource-rich corporations. This has created a burgeoning movement of free software and open source technicians, independent media activists and creative artists and writers.

Certainly not all elements of this burgeoning movement are political, and libertarian attitudes are just as likely to be found on the right as on the left. Nevertheless, it is clear that the experience of growing up digital is starting to politicise young people, who take pride in the collaborative models that they are developing and are determined to defend them when they are threatened.

Corporate backlash

Inadvertently, corporations are intensifying this politicisation when they desperately try to limit the culture of sharing. In addition to its frequent attempts to close down file-sharing sites such as the Pirate Bay (and Napster before it), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has sued more than 30,000 randomly selected US families for music file-sharing in the last five years. And these legal actions are likely to continue. As corporations’ possibilities for increasing profit diminish at a time of recession and against a systemic capitalist tendency for overproduction, patents are one of the few mechanisms that insulate companies from competition and keep prices high for their branded products (whether they are music albums or Microsoft software).

The cultural industry is one of the largest and most profitable in the developed world, especially in the US and Japan. Four companies control 70 per cent of the world’s music market. Copyright industries in the US have typically outperformed other industries, contributing as much as 24 per cent of overall economic growth in 2007. These corporations usually don’t produce the content and tend not to employ creative producers directly, but rather identify and invest in a small number of artists who can create the most value. They concentrate on licensing: maintaining the maximum length of control of the ‘intellectual property’ and exercising these rights in as many arenas as possible (film, TV, dvds, merchandise).

Corporations are not willing to let go of this control easily. Apart from legal threats, companies benefit from the corporate control of access to the internet and corporate ownership of popular ‘sharing’ sites like YouTube. In January 2009, they succeeded in pressurising Eircom in Ireland to become the first internet service provider to block access to all file-sharing content, and they undoubtedly hope to pressure other ISPs to follow suit.

They have backed this up with pressure to change the law in many countries. Where the corporations don’t have sufficient influence on domestic politicians, they have used the arsenal of regional free trade agreements and even blunt diplomatic threats to impose stricter intellectual property regimes and to target file-sharing sites. The first attempt to close down the Pirate Bay was in 2006, when Swedish police confiscated servers. It took place after threats from the US embassy against the Swedish government.

Mark Getty of Getty Images – one of the largest owners of copyrighted materials – once said: ‘Intellectual property is the oil of the 21st century.’ Digital activists took this to mean that corporations, and countries like the US, would be willing to go to legal and, who knows, maybe even literal war to protect and control it.

Losing control

Despite their best efforts, there is a sense that the corporations face an impossible task in trying to put free culture back into a safe pre-digital box. Felix Stalder, media researcher at Zurich University, says: ‘I think the war on piracy is failing for social reasons. People like to communicate, to share things, to transform things, and technology makes it so easy that there is no way of stopping it.’

The Pirate Party’s Richard Falkvinge compares the fight to the attempts by the church to control information and culture in the Middle Ages. ’15 years ago we had one source communicating to the many, like a newspaper or TV station. Today, however, with the internet, millions of people are exchanging culture and information, so there is no way of controlling this information.’

Pirate Bay’s founders have said that regardless of the trial’s outcome Pirate Bay will continue to exist, as it is now set up on servers across the world in such a way that even the owners don’t know where they are.

Notably, Getty Images was sold in 2008 after its stock prices plunged with the rapid rise of cheaper and open-access images on the web. In January 2009, Apple announced it would remove anti-copying restrictions (known as digital rights management) on all of the songs in its popular iTunes store.

Most significant, perhaps, are the strong alternatives and new models of knowledge-sharing that are emerging as cracks appear in the weakening structure of intellectual property. In the digital world, free and open source applications such as the Firefox browser and OpenOffice suite are taking off as alternatives to Microsoft programs. The collaborative and free-to-use internet encyclopaedia Wikipedia is now the fourth most popular website worldwide (after Google, Yahoo and MSN). An increasing number of projects are now carried out collectively and collaboratively across the internet. Bands such as Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have shown that bypassing corporate media companies and allowing people to pay what they want to download an album can still ensure that artists get rewarded for their creative work.

Creativity shows no signs of being squashed by the decline in profits of companies like Sony music. More than 130 million works by writers, photographers, and film producers have been released with Creative Commons licences, which are designed to make it easier for people to share and build upon the work of others. German activist Sebastian Lütgert, from do-it-yourself squatter-cinema group Pirate Cinema, believes that ‘what we are witnessing is the coming of producers rather than consumers, and that suggests a new economic model for society.’

In practical terms, researcher Dorothy Kidd notes that ‘the open source software movement offers a good model for how decentralised network structures can work. It is an example that contradicts the ideology that says that public institutions are not flexible and dynamic enough to work.’ She believes that these practices need to be incorporated into social movements’ practices and their articulation of alternatives.

There will be challenges in doing this – and it is important not to over-romanticise developments like the free and open source software movements. Jeff Juris, an analyst on new media technologies and social movements, says: ‘Open source movements can still replicate hierarchies seen in traditional systems. This time the divisions are not just around the usual issues of power and money, but also based on a divide between “techies” and “activists”.’

Others note that open source models and corporate power are not mutually exclusive, citing the prominent role of IT company Sun Microsystems in projects such as OpenOffice. Collaborative models have the potential to flatten hierarchies and weaken corporate power, but this still requires a firm political commitment from the participants.

In an interview carried out by the digital magazine Wired with one of Pirate Bay’s collaborators, Pete (surname undisclosed) tells the reporter: ‘It’s not the problem of the pirates to figure out how to compensate artists or encourage invention away from the current intellectual property system … Our job is just to tear down the flawed system that exists, to force the hand of society to make something better.’ Therein lies the challenge for social movements and activists to take the redefinition of piracy a stage further – to turn the image of a pirate from an eye-patched destroyer to one of a digitally-inspired pioneer, determined to use creativity to build new collaborative and just economic and social models of living.

This article is based on conversations, papers and web links pulled together at the Networked Politics and Technology seminar at Berkeley

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