As a follow-up to my last post about piracy, I wanted to write a bit more about the pirating of content, which has a history that’s as long and storied as seafaring piracy. The concepts of copyright and intellectual property are fairly new in jurisprudence. I won’t give a detailed history here, but rather speak to my own expertise in Renaissance-era history and literature in Spain.
The notion of plagiarism, moreover, did not exist in Cervantes’ time. In my post on Blaeu’s Atlas Maior, I discussed how map plates were often bought, sold, or simply reproduced in the race for the best atlas. Imitatio was an acceptable, even admirable exercise. Those who took lines from a famous poet, paraphrased or change them in some way, were not guilty of an offense but rather applauded for their deference to established authority. It was easy enough to reprint an unauthorized edition and flood the market with cheap copies of the same work, and such editions often got around the significant problem of royal or Inquisitorial censorship.
Authors of the early modern period were caught between models of patronage and an emerging capitalist idea of copyright. John Milton, for example, famously sold the rights to Paradise Lost for a pittance.
In the prefatory materials to part 2 of Don Quixote, Cervantes worries that an “unauthorized” continuation of Don Quixote’s adventures–the “Avellaneda” Quixote from 1614– has hit the market before Cervantes’ own continuation (1615), causing “loathing and disgust” (Grossman’s translation). For Cervantes, this is not a financial issue, but rather one of authorship and creative control or authority over his creation–the characters aren’t really the same ones he envisioned. This claim stands in stark contrast to the first part of Don Quixote (1605), in which Cervantes states he’s the “stepfather” of Don Quixote and continually problematizes the concepts of text, authorship and authority.
Lope de Vega, a contemporary of Cervantes, was also concerned about unauthorized publications of his works, again not for financial reasons. Instead, Lope’s concern was about the integrity of his plays as dramatic and poetic perfection. Those who printed his works relied on audience members with questionable memory for poetry, and thus Lope prints his works to set the record straight.
Content piracy indeed existed, and it was questionable and possibly illegal. Yet it remained an alternative and widespread means of dissemination.
Fast-forward to the present. The music and movie industries scored a minor victory in the trial against The Pirate Bay, a file-sharing site whose founders are outspoken critics of intellectual property and copyright in particular. They envision a future in which content is unprotected and free to use, modify, and distribute worldwide. One of the Pirate Bay’s arguments during their trial was that search engines like Google provide essentially the same services–a searchable database that can locate torrent files and enable the user to download copyrighted content free of charge.
Still, experts estimate that 95% of music is downloaded illegally. While the music industry and Hollywood have made some steps to modernize their business model, it’s clear that they’re living in the past. Lawsuits like the one brought against The Pirate Bay or individual users are aimed at recovering profits for record companies and movie studios, not artists. While these corporations insist they are making it safe for artists to create content, it’s obvious that drastic change must occur to make sites like The Pirate Bay unattractive. Legal threats haven’t changed the majority of how users obtain and share content. Accordingly, more and more acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are distributing their work for free, and making a living on special editions and live shows.
While online downloading via Amazon or iTunes, special editions, boxed sets, and DVDs aimed at collectors are doubtless good moves forward for content providers, current distribution networks (big box retail stores, record stores) are still an unreliable network in an age of instant access. That’s where sites like The Pirate Bay come into play.
File sharing portals are essentially the dark underbelly of their legal counterparts like Spotify, Rhapsody, YouTube, and the reformed Napster. As I suggested in the previous post, if Somali piracy is the evil twin of global capitalism, content piracy is the necessary inverse of our own culture of instant gratification. Hulu, Twitter, Facebook and The Pirate Bay are all variations on the same theme.