Ars Book Review: "The Pirate's Dilemma"

Referring back to my post about the merits of piracy ArsTechnica is running a book review on former UK Pirate DJ Matthew Mason’s The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism. Mason argues, among other things that the US was largely founded on piracy, and not just of the Hollywood variety:

“During the nineteenth century Industrial Revolution, the Founding Fathers pursued a policy of counterfeiting European inventions, ignoring global patents, and stealing intellectual property wholesale.”

…Americans were so known for piracy that they were eventually branded Yankees, from the Dutch “Janke,” slang for a pirate.

The article takes a very centrist perspective on the matter, and follows up with an interview of Mason. One of the more interesting ideas put forward is a likening of the eponymous “Pirate’s Dilemma” to the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” from AI game theory. A paradox of market interests emerges and a grid begins to form, one where a circumstance of limited choice emerges and pirates/industry now move inside this artifice according to prescribed actions. It’s not only a paradox, it’s mostly a zero-sum effort. Mason suggests that the antidote is to have industry play against the pirates in the market (where they’re making money) as opposed to the courts (where they’re spending money and losing valuable goodwill and brand equity).

ArsTechnica balances this carefully, weighing the greater good against the interests of private enterprise through the lens of a Pirate’s Dilemma:

…While piracy may be good for those who don’t have to pay for something, it’s less immediately clear how it might benefit the broader economy. And how could it help the very companies who are being hurt by it? Here is Mason’s answer, one worth quoting at length.
By short-circuiting conventional channels and red tape, pirates can deliver new materials, formats, and business models to audiences who want them. Canal Street moves faster than Wall Street. Piracy transforms the markets it operates in, changing the way distribution works and forcing companies to be more competitive and innovative. Pirates don’t just defend the public domain from corporate control; they also force big business and government to deliver what we want, when we want it.

It’s an argument worth considering. Would we have iTunes, eMusic, Amie Street, and the Amazon digital music store without the pressure brought by the pirates? It’s hard to say definitively, but… how much innovation would the labels have allowed without… KaZaA, Gnutella, and especially the original Napster?

As we begin to see open source content become a viable reality, and as pirate-like punk DIY finds an increasingly welcoming marketplace, the labels and the studios will increasingly have to compete, not with the disruptive influence of free pirate offerings, but with free, premium content operating under different monetizing models. I wonder if they’ll be willing to pay to copy those models once the prove viable, or will they simply take them and use them for free?

Link to ArsTechnica Review
Book @ Amazon: The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism

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