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On March 26th 2000, five executives from Jive Records met at The Palm restaurant in New York to celebrate. They ate lobster. They deserved it. It had been a big year. The third album from the Backstreet Boys—the label’s golden goose—had broken sales records, and the debut album from their latest discovery, an 18-year-old named Britney Spears, had spawned five singles and earned the label millions. They planned to release a second album for her in a few months’ time and another for the Backstreet Boys by the year’s end. But they were toasting neither of these artists tonight. They were there for NSYNC, whose second album, No Strings Attached, had been released five days earlier.
Even before the results of the SoundScan albums chart came in, they knew that the news was good. Fans had reportedly lined up outside CD stores across the country to get their hands on a copy. Many stores had stayed open until midnight to cater to the demand, even though it was a Tuesday. There were even reports of fans buying numerous copies just to boost the album’s sales performance. That the album had been met with a middling response by critics (Entertainment Weekly had called it an album of “unintentional parodies of R&B”) didn’t matter. The SoundScan charts said it all: No Strings Attached had sold 2.4 million copies in the US in its first week, more than double the previous record that Jive Records had themselves set with Backstreet Boys’ Millenium less than a year prior. Jive president Barry Weiss told Rolling Stone just how he was feeling that evening: “Look at us five schmucks around the table – we just made history.”
Weiss was more right than he knew. NSYNC’s record would not be broken. But this would stand not so much as a triumph for the music industry, but as the beginning of the end. The days when labels had control over how their music was to be consumed, and at what price—the model that got CDs off the shelves and dollars into record labels’ pockets—were coming to a close. New technologies were emerging that allowed people to access music directly from one another without paying a cent to the artists, let alone the labels, who made it. Within half a decade one in five internet users would use these technologies. By the end of the decade, fewer than 40 per cent of US music consumers would pay for the music they acquired. Revenue from music sales would drop by more than half. Retail giants like HMV and Tower would come toppling down, filing for bankruptcy. Jive Records itself would disappear. The music landscape was to change so drastically that when NSYNC’s Justin Timberlake released his most successful album as a solo artist in 2013, The 20/20 Experience, it would sell 968,000 units in its opening week—less than half of NSYNC’s record.
But with NSYNC riding a historical high, the Jive Records big wigs could imagine no such thing. Names like Limewire, Kazaa and BitTorrent rang no bells. The name Napster they did know. It was an internet application created by some college dropout that had caused somewhat of a stir by making it easy to download pirated mp3s. College kids loved it, but it was no major concern. Napster was theft and, in America, theft doesn’t fly. The nation’s best copyright lawyers were already working to shut the thing down.
The lobster was delicious.
Twelve years later a curious wedding occurred in Belgrade, Serbia. The bride, dressed in a flowing black and white panel dress, was Romanian. The groom, a red-headed Italian, wore a 17th century tunic with Elizabethan neck ruff. The priest’s identity was concealed—he wore a Guy Fawkes mask and spoke through a computer. Opera played softly in the background.
“We are here to announce a new pair of noble peers,” the priest said, Microsoft Sam’s voice, not his, ringing out from the overhead PA system. “Copying of information is simply right. Dissemination of information is ethically right. Copying and remixing information communicated by another person is seen as an act of respect. The internet is holy. Code is law.” The priest turned to the groom. “Do you want to share your love, your knowledge, and your feelings with [the bride] as long as that information exists?” The bride and groom said their “I dos” and they were married.
The marriage was the first under the Missionary Church of Kopimism, a religion founded only 18 months prior and officially recognised in Sweden, the country from which it came, only that year. While it is bizarre in ceremony, in ideology Kopimism is radical. Copying, the Church proclaims, is sacred. It is not simply a useful process for the communication of information, but something holy in its own right. And it is all around us—from the objects that inhabit our homes, all copies of designs reproduced over and over again in manufacturing lines in far-away factories, to the basis of life itself, emerging anew through the duplication of DNA. Originality is an illusion. Copyright, the legal tool to protect originality, is sacrilege. Information must be shared. File-sharing is worship. Ctrl-C. Ctrl-V.
The marriage ceremony was a celebration of love as the deepest form of communication, but to industry executives like Barry Weiss, whose empire had crumbled over the last twelve years, the ceremony was closer to Satanic pact. The Church represented the purest essence of the force that the music, film and software industries knew by one name, a name that conjures a distinctly non-spiritual impression: piracy.
These were people who not only refused to pay for the music and movies they enjoyed, but who opposed the entire institution of copyright. These people were worse than those behind Napster, who had at least been amenable to the idea of cutting a deal with the music industry. And they weren’t limited to a few zealots in a church. These people were a part of a broader movement that had produced in Sweden a Piracy Bureau and Pirate Party. The former distributed anti-copyright literature, while the latter amassed 50,000 members, Sweden’s largest youth political wing, and two seats in the European Parliament. Pirate parties now sailed political seas across the world—Kim Dotcom’s Internet Party was a part of the fleet.
While Weiss and the Jive boys could see little beyond skulls and crossbones, the group’s motivations were diverse. Not all were there for reasons as heavenly as the Kopimists. Others, like John Perry Barlow, saw file-sharing as part of a broader dream. Barlow, a cattle-rancher turned internet freedom activist, was part of the early wave of internet users who saw in the “electronic frontier” the hope of a space free from the coercive influence of government and big business. In his 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace—a rebuttal to attempts by the US government to regulate internet activity—he outlined his vision.
“We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity. Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are based on matter, There is no matter here. Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion.”
The internet is a place where true democracy and freedom might be achieved. File-sharing is a tool to realise this dream; its suppression jeopardises it. Copyright law cannot be enforced without the monitoring and surveillance of internet activity. To Barlow, this is when the dream dies.
Others simply saw nothing to fear. The hubbub over file-sharing was simply a case of the film and music industries running scared of innovation, just as they had with VCRs, cassette recorders and cable TV. File-sharing was a shake-up, but all that would be lost would be the corporate middlemen. And with them gone, artist and audience would be brought closer. Album sales might decline, but this would be more than compensated through increased reach and exposure.
Barlow often pointed to a personal experience from the days before the internet as an analogy. In what may as well have been another life, he had written lyrics for legendary American rock band, The Grateful Dead, a band renowned for embracing the bootlegging of their own music and merchandise. At concerts they would often stride onstage in knock-off merchandise, rather than the authorised versions their label sold, and widely circulated fan-made recordings of their shows were held in as high regard as the band’s studio work. To the band, this approach wasn’t a sacrifice. It was good economics. File-sharing would simply make this the normal means of business.
These were no ordinary pirates.
On 9 December last year Swedish police raided a guarded bunker built into a mountain on the outskirts of Stockholm. It was the nuclear-proof “secret mountain complex” that The Pirate Bay, the world’s most popular torrenting site, had previously boasted of. Police closed down the servers, seized computers, and arrested one member of staff. To the file-sharing community, this was groundhog day. To the music industry it was an offensive in a battle that they had already lost.
For the last fourteen years the music and film industries have been trying desperately to stop the unstoppable. The killing of Napster by court order in 2001 gave the industry false hope. Napster had closed its servers in compliance with an injunction, but the swift appearance of replacement sites like Aimster and Audiogalaxy indicated that others were not so concerned about the opinion of the United States judiciary. And building replacements was no difficulty—Napster was, after all, created by one college student in a matter of months. Other lawsuits followed. Some sites, like BearShare and Kazaa, followed Napster’s lead and bowed to legal pressure, but most simply moved their servers abroad—Somalia’s .so domain was a popular choice.
A second strategy—scaring off those who use file-sharing applications—has been no more successful. Beginning with a massive litigation campaign in September 2003, music and film companies around the world have made examples of individual internet users, bombarding them with infringement notices and demanding compensation. This approach was felt in New Zealand—in 2011 Parliament passed the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act, implementing a three-strikes policy for illegal downloaders.
As with its overseas equivalents, it has had little effect. Under the legislation only 18 prosecutions have been successful, even though an estimated 50,000 illegal downloads occur in New Zealand daily. Furthermore, the effect of this approach has been simply to punish the innocent or ignorant. As it is difficult to identify individual users on a shared wifi network, account holders are often targeted for the copyright infringing activity of their friends, flat-mates and neighbours. In one case, a soldier was found liable for files downloaded on his New Zealand wifi account while he was on tour in Afghanistan. The existence of sites like dietrolldie.com, dedicated to the testimonies of internet users hounded into submission by copyright lawyers, indicates the New Zealand experience has been far from unusual.
As with its predecessors, the closure of Pirate Bay had little effect. Users quickly shifted to equivalent services. Hundreds of mirror sites appeared. By 1 January, a pirate flag, hosted from servers in Moldova, appeared on the Swedish domain. By the end of January, The Pirate Bay was back online. The file-sharing debate is no longer a question about what is possible. Whoever you are, wherever you are, free content is yours for the taking.
To the Kopimists and their friends, this is the end of the story. In 2007, The Piracy Bureau held a book burning. On what was declared a “Walpurgis Night”—the night when witches are said to gather and when the Church of Satan was founded—all remaining copies of their manifesto, Copy Me, were incinerated. They were no longer needed. The file-sharing debate, they declared, was buried.
“From when we talk about file-sharing from now on it’s as one of many ways to copy,” they said. “We talk about better and worse ways of indexing, archiving and copying—not whether copying is right or wrong. Winter is pouring down the hillside. Make way for spring!”
To the book-burners, the debate was, and remains, a battle between those who believe in the potential of file-sharing technologies and those who do not. Even then, before the Pirate Bay’s secret bunker was raided and before the Italian married the Romanian, they were right that this battle was over. The possibility of putting a lid on the file-sharing was impossible. However, the declaration was not simply a description of what was possible, and this has never been the full picture. Another question has always been there—how and when should we copy? Implicit in the Bureau’s statement was an answer to this question: anyway and always.
In this respect, the debate was far from over.
Since Napster, the industry had shifted. Slowly they have accepted that file-sharing is not some fringe activity, but the new landscape. Reluctantly they have searched this landscape for a place of their own. It started with the development of avenues for legal downloading. While the first digital music sale was in 1997, when Capitol Records sold off a Duran Duran single, the launch of the Apple iTunes store in 2003 signalled an acceptance from the industry that the old days were no more. A diverse catalogue of music, TV and film became available for purchase. Among Google Play, Amazon and TuneTribe, it is now the largest of a diverse market of legal alternatives.
Then legal access was made free, or close to it. Spotify—a service that allows users to stream music for free with advertisements or without advertisements for a small subscription fee—was launched in Sweden in 2008. In 2011 it came to the US and New Zealand. 20 million songs were yours for nothing, or next to it. It now has 60 million users, 15 million of whom are paying subscribers. Apple plans to launch a competitor service this year, and says it’ll be even cheaper. Even for those not converted to Spotify, there are now numerous alternatives. Pandora functions as a radio stations tailored to your unique listening habits. Soundcloud and Bandcamp host a vibrant community of independent musicians. Music videos are now released on Youtube as a matter of course—indeed, a recent survey found that YouTube was the main way young people discovered new music. For all but vinyl aficionados, the notion of paying for discrete items of music has become passé. The pirate’s dream has become legitimate business.
These changes have had an impact on file-sharing services. By 2012, the percentage of internet users in the US downloading music via peer-to-peer file-sharing services was down by nearly a half from 2005 levels. This wasn’t just correlation. According to a study from that same year, the primary reason for consumers stopping or reducing their usage of file-sharing networks was an increased use of free, legal streaming services. Clearly, for many, the deal on offer is a good one. For minimal effort and money, nearly anything you like can be enjoyed and the artists’ wishes respected. The choice between low cost access and doing the right thing no longer needs to be made.
Yet for many, this clearly isn’t good enough. As the book-burners and the curious marriage in Serbia is testament to, many—one in ten of us—continue to download illegally. What justification remains? When the deal offered by the industry is so easy to accept, why do we refuse to accept it?
There are a few defensible reasons. Some content is just too hard to acquire legally. Many TV shows, for instance, are impossible to access legally online. Some downloads may be for content that we have earlier paid for. But it would be naive to suggest that these reasons account for all illegal downloads. Perhaps others just believe strongly, as those like Barlow do, that file-sharing is an essential tool of a free internet and must be protected.
Using legal alternatives when the artists and labels wish it, however, does not require that file-sharing as a tool must end; you can oppose the closure of Pirate Bay but still use legal means to listen to music. It is true too that services like Spotify and Pandora are not free from criticism. Recently it has come under fire for cutting artists an unfair deal. 80s alternative rock group Galaxie 500, for example, made more money from each individual LP they sold in the late 80s than from all 13,760 times the same track was played on Pandora and Spotify. Indeed, last year Taylor Swift pulled her entire catalogue from Spotify in protest. But the protest these artists are making is not for more illegal downloading—they claim they deserve more for their work, not less.
Perhaps religion offers some answers. To the Kopimists and their friends there is nothing to answer for. If copyright is sacrilege, the question of paying an artist for their work is no question at all. If originality is a fiction, who has the right to profit off an idea? There is a logic to this—the power of religion is that belief trumps all else. But the Church of Kopimism is small, numbering only in the low thousands. How many of us can honestly profess to being true believers?
It was not easy accepting that the lobster would not last. While Justin Timberlake could bring sexy back, he could not bring back the past. No longer could Barry Weiss and the team at Jive Records get rich while the rest of us stacked our trolleys with CDs and videotapes. Maybe it hadn’t been the fairest way of doing business in the first place, but if they could have kept things that way they would have. The business was theirs and it worked for them. In 2015, as we pursue a pirate’s dream in a world where this is no longer necessary, perhaps we are not so different. Like the Jive boys, we do it because we can.