The law’s not working, the entertainment industry is ignoring the problem and piracy’s not going away anytime soon: these were just a few of the ideas circulating at Wednesday’s panel debate on piracy in East London.
The audience at Piracy Panacea, organised by “Granta for the MySpace generation”, Bad Idea magazine, put questions to four panellists: "IT Crowd" and "Father Ted" creator Graham Linehan, technology journalist Wendy Grossman, Steal This Film director Jamie King and business analyst Thierry Rayna. For the three who work directly in the entertainment and media industries, all took a sceptical view of how piracy was handled in the legal system.
Linehan said the big business response towards pirates was like saying, “put down the gun, or I’ll stab you”. Piracy had become the norm for a whole generation, the panellists agreed. But what does all this mean for the book trade? Tellingly, e-book piracy never came up. No one on the panel worked in publishing, and no one in the audience raised the issue.
It was journalist Alistair Harper’s introduction to the night that said the most about e-books. Harper gave a brief history of piracy, and literature got a big look in. Piracy was as old as the Gutenberg press. On our side of the pond, John Milton was a champion "a free and open encounter" with ideas, and an open community of thought. Meanwhile, US founding father Benjamin Franklin was a happy pirate of eighteenth century writing—especially Rousseau—and imported pirated titles from the UK to the colonies.
Jamie King gave an interesting example of downloads that pay. "The Wire", a cult TV series on HBO, became an overnight success after illegal downloaders spread the word. According to King, network bosses knew all about the downloads but—through lack of resources? Deliberately?—did nothing. The show discovered its target audience, and ratings surged, creating one of America’s biggest TV phenomenons.
There are, of course, proponents of this model of giving away (or letting pirates take) digital content in order to increase print or e-books sales in the books world. Cory Doctorow, for one, spoke of it at the last Tools of Change in Frankfurt, calling publishers who use DRM, "the real pirates". Paulo Coelho believes in "The Wire"-style spreading of the word; on his website he actually lists BitTorrent sites where his fans can download his books for free (though he cautions he’s just directing you to third parties and “this may be considered illegal”).
This has not hindered Coelho’s sales. Sure, he is big well-established brand author with legions of fans. But it would be interesting to see publishers and other authors experimenting this way.
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