The hypocrisy of piracy

Pirate-Bay

Those who promote or facilitate the “sharing” of copyrighted content like to perpetuate an image of themselves as freedom-fighting renegades out “to stick it to the man” — the adage itself pirated from the sixties — “the man” representing those big bad corporations that make a profit off the backs of us artists and consumers alike. It’s an easy sell when you’re selling free, with the masses happy to swallow bullshit disguised as honey and overlook the obvious hypocrisy of the typical pirate site: corporate advertising.

Go to any torrent site and what is the one common denominator among them, besides stolen goods? Banners and Google ads. Far from sticking it to the suits, these “freedom fighters” are helping the likes of Google — worth at last count $192 billion — get even richer while taking a portion of the allegedly poisonous corporate pie for themselves. To see what I mean, do a search for free downloads of a popular author like Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) then check the sites — like piratebay or filestube — that come up (the image above is from piratebay.org). And while the connection between piracy and ads for porn are obvious (the majority of torrent sites users are male teenagers and college students) you might be wondering why a legitimate business would advertise on a pirate site. The answer is that they’re not necessarily aware of it: their media buyers use agencies who in turn are less than scrupulous in their selections: a Daily Mail article claims that 593 of the top 600 UK and U.S. media-buying firms have purchased space on an illegal site.

(The degree of this hypocrisy is perhaps best exemplified by The Pirate Bay, which, while boasting that its location in Sweden puts it out of reach of U.S. copyright legislation, is actually formally registered in the Seychelles, an offshore tax haven that affords its corporations the luxury of full director privacy — meaning the directors need not be listed on any public document — no residency requirements, no annual reporting requirements, and no need even to keep accounts.)

What those who promote piracy are really promoting is a way to make money off YOUR back by stealing the content that YOU should be rightfully earning a living from and using it to earn themselves some serious coin. At least when the publishers kept the bulk of a book’s royalties for themselves we authors got something in return for it — publication, marketing, distribution, maybe even an advance — but what are the pirates giving us? Nothing except the unsubstantiated claim that the theft and “sharing” of our books encourages legitimate sales.

There is this deeply entrenched myth that the original master pirate site, Napster, was created by similarly anti-corporate, free-thinking guys who “just wanted to see if the program worked” and who never had any corporate ambitions. Type in “how did Napster make its money” into Google and up will pop various blogs perpetuating this myth. The truth, however, is far different. A Bloomberg Business article, written in August 2000 when Napster was facing its legal challenges in the U.S., reveals that the company was incorporated in May 1999, before its teenage designer, Shawn Fanning, had even finished the beta version. When the beta was released and proved a hit, the company immediately began raising investor funds, reaching $350,000 within a few months. In October 1999 it raised a further $2 million, and in May 2000 it raised another $15 million in venture capital. Another source reveals that soon thereafter Napster was running ads on its site, message boards, artist promotion pages, and its Featured Music Update newsletter. However, when asked how it earns its money, Napster replied, “Napster, Inc. has not chosen to make its business model public at this time. Napster, Inc. is a privately-held company.”

What is also revealed in the Bloomberg article is that Napster initially tried to broker a deal with the music companies that would have seen a share of Napster’s revenues paid to the musicians whose songs were being pirated. Greed and hubris got in the way, though, and a deal was never inked. Instead, the music giants took Napster down. It filed for bankruptcy, reincarnated itself as a pay-per-use site (Napster 2.0), was bought in 2008 by Best Buy for $121 million, and just merged with Rhapsody on December 1, 2011.

So the next time some pirate site promoter is ridiculously making comparisons to Wikileaks, follow the money.

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