The battle between online pirates and corporations is heating up. In the last few days both sides have had significant victories. The pirates have proven yet again that they have guts after a version of the newest X-Men film was released onto The Piratebay, the world's largest pirate website, before it was released in the theatres. But the corporations are fighting back in States such as France and Sweden which have passed laws that will, if unopposed, inaugurate the death of the internet dream. No longer a wild frontier, unsettled and open to future possibilities, the fight against online piracy is justifying increasingly draconian measures that will put our online behavior under the corporate-capitalist microscope. Under the pretense of monitoring whether we are downloading pirated culture, corporations have engineered a symbolic coup in which the spirit of the internet has become inverted. The capitalist bullies are taking back the playground, unless we fight back. The only way forward, toward the original dream of censorship-free communication, is to build mainstream support for online piracy based on the argument that piracy is a litmus test for authentic culture.
The French plan to lock down the Internet involves, predictably, collusion between the State and corporations. According to the New York Times, "The law empowers music and film industry associations to hire companies to analyze the downloads of individual users to detect piracy, and to report violations to a new agency overseeing copyright protection. The agency would be authorized to trace the illegal downloads back to individuals using the downloading computer’s unique identification number, known as its Internet Protocol, or IP, address, which the Internet service providers have on record." In other words, all French internet traffic will be turned over to private corporations who will sift through every website visited, email read, and late-night IM conversation had looking for "illegal downloading". If a user is caught three times, then their internet connection is disconnected, permanently. Such an audacious internet surveillance scheme would probably not have passed had it not targeted an activity few of us are willing to stand up and publicly endorse. That is precisely the reason we must do so: if online piracy is the backdoor by which control of the internet will come, then we must openly acknowledge what many of us already secretly believe -- that online culture should be free and remixable, the laws of capitalism shall not apply here.
Piracy... the word sends shivers up the spine as it evokes hungry Somali pirates seizing cargo and holding hostages. But online piracy is not the same, to make a copy is not a depletion, but a multiplication of the original. Online piracy, we should really call it online replication, is a beautiful thing for it offers an easy litmus test for authentic culture. Take, for example, two hypothetical films: one made by struggling idealistic art students and the other by a big name director backed by a major studio with a multimillion dollar budget and nationwide advertising campaign. If each film was pirated and watched by a million people we could reasonably expect that the film students would be ecstatic (without an advertising budget their film would have been doomed to the art house circuit) while the big name director would be furious. Why? Because the film students are doing it for art while the director is doing it for the money. This is, in simple terms, what I believe the political potential of piracy to be -- piracy allows us to quickly ascertain the authenticity of a cultural product. Roughly, we could say that an authentic cultural production would be one that does not suffer from piracy because the artistic goal is in line with remix culture. Let us endorse the artists who support piracy and pirate the ones who don't. In this way we will be helping authentic culture while destroying inauthentic, capitalist culture.
There is no swifter way to bring about the de-commercialization of art than to undercut the profit motive. Likewise, there is no better way to promote a blackspot culture than to actively copy and distribute the cultural productions that speak to us and the future we'd like to build. If we pirate everything, how will the artists get paid? That is precisely the point: piracy opens up the possibility of imagining new ways of being and new ways of supporting the potential of art to change the world.