Infringement Cinema – A defense of the pirate’s worldview against its critics

In my never-ending quest to publicly disagree with every opinion I dislike, I today turn my attention to the wonderful website that is Overthinking It, your one-stop shop for deep intellectual scrutiny of shallow popular culture, and this less wonderful article in it, titled Why Cory Doctorow’s “Pirate Cinema” Makes Me Root for Big Content by Matthew Belinkie. Yes, I am going to be critiquing a critique of a book. Now, as a critique of the general literary quality of the book, I can say nothing, because I haven’t read “Pirate Cinema”, although of course I could at any time (seriously, check out the official website. Cory goes out of his way to make his stuff accessible). No, I’m going to be criticizing Matthew Belinkie’s view of reality. I may be misreading him here, but it seems to me that his view of reality is substantially different from mine, especially when it comes to copyright and “piracy” and all that jazz, and I feel that his views on these things negatively affect his reading of the book.

Again, I haven’t read “Pirate Cinema”, so when it comes to talking about the style and feel of the book, I’m going to give Matthew the benefit of the doubt, because I’m pretty sure that he did read it, all the way through. That said, on the criticizing!

Belinkie opens up with this interesting description of the moral worldviews in Doctorow’s fiction:

But like Sinclair, Doctorow isn’t trying to lay out both sides of a complicated issue and let the reader make her own decisions; he’s trying to fill people with outrage and get them to storm the Bastille. He’s writing shameless propaganda that makes one side good and noble and pure, and the other greedy and corrupt. I was willing to accept this easily enough was his target was the Department of Homeland security (as it was in Little Brother) because I’m a big old leftie. This time, however, Doctorow takes a complicated issue and tries so hard to erase all shades of gray that I ended up being more against him than with him. Since I’m as big a fan of video remixing as there is, this is quite an achievement.

I hate to see a complicated issue reduced to a crude soundbite, and that happens a lot since it’s easy to do, so I’m all prepped and ready to side with Belinkie on this one. And what is the complicated issue that Doctorow is oversimplifying?

What I mean by shades of gray is that while you might think that the current state of copyright law is unfair (and it is!), surely the 25 million people who pirated Game of Thrones are also in the wrong. I mean, no one outside some smart aleck in a high school Civics class is going to make a serious argument that everything should be available for free. Right?

Uh… pardon me, Matthew, but what did you just call me? Because that remark about the “smart aleck” felt like it was directed at me. Am I reading you wrong here?

I may be reading Matthew wrong here, actually. He offers us this quote from “Pirate Cinema”:

They say it’s about protecting property, but they invented this idea that creativity is property! How can you own an idea? They say their imaginary property is more important than our privacy, our creativity, and our freedom. I say bugger that. I say we’ve got a moral duty to pirate everything we can, until they’re nothing more than bad memories.

Well, this is more extreme than my position. I don’t think anyone’s got a duty to “pirate” everything, or even a duty to “pirate” anything. I just say they have a right to do so, and I acknowledge that people have a tendency to do so. But there’s still something to this “extreme” position. The historical record seems to me to indicate that publishers did, indeed, invent this idea that creativity is property, and there are all kinds of problems with trying to own an idea, and enforcement of copyright is interfering with privacy, and creativity, and freedom (more on this later).

If Matthew Belinkie wants to criticize Cory for not sufficiently examining this worldview, I can dig that. Every worldview needs a good examination, including ones that closely resemble my own. And giving short shrift to opposing viewpoints is not cool, and Matthew seems to take Cory to task for doing so. I shall have to read the book later, to see if Matthew is right, but I can believe that he is, and if he is, Cory Doctorow deserves to be criticized for failing to properly present his worldview. But I still can’t shake the feeling that Matthew is criticizing the worldview itself, and giving short shrift to those who advocate it.

For instance, when one character (a member of Parliament) proposes a plan that would decriminalize file-sharing and institute a generalized Internet tax to compensate copyright holders, Matthew calls the proposal “a dumb idea” and “not a serious suggestion”. But smart people have made it a serious suggestion. Richard Stallman explains how it might work here and here. Dean Baker has made a similar proposal. Matthew criticizes the proposal for being too cheap, noting that a copy of Avatar costs 30 pounds and Assassin’s Creed III goes for 40, but he forgets that in the rest of the world, you can already get new movies for around three dollars. Matthew thinks that it’s unrealistic to expect the majors to “devalue their products” to compete with piracy, but he ignores the fact that many have done just that, because in markets like China and India, they had no choice, and in markets like Scandinavia, they just do it because it works. Belinkie also ignores the fact that infringing filesharing was not a criminal offense until the entertainment industry sought to criminalize it. He also compares “piracy” to stealing a Lamborghini, ignoring the fact that comparing filesharing to theft is just dumb (even the MPAA shied away from the theft term).

Belinkie makes some good criticisms about the general attitude of the characters in the book, noting that they never seem to pay for anything. How are we supposed to empathize with these guys when they seem to have an almost magical power to get everything for free? Computers, food, electricity, even places to live… have our heroes learned how to download a car? Protagonists should be easy to sympathize with, and if Matthew is right about the heroes of “Pirate Cinema”, then Doctorow has given us some ill-chosen protagonists. Why should the reader root for them? They don’t need our help.

But Matthew Belinkie seems to go beyond merely disliking the annoying protagonists. He seems to actively hate them. At the beginning of the book, the main character loses Internet access for a year because he’s been accused of three counts of copyright infringement (accused but not convicted? I’ll have to check the book). The trouble is that this means the whole family loses Internet access for a year. No job searching, no online homework, no searching for medical advice… think of all the things you use Internet for, and then think of not doing any of that for a year, and oh yeah, your family gets punished too, USSR-style. This is the sort of punishment that anyone would consider highly inappropriate, and yet this is what Matthew Belinkie has to say about it: “Another way to look at the situation is that Trent should have stopped downloading stuff after the first two warnings, thereby sparing the family those extreme measures.” In other words, victim-blaming. Do I need to explain why that’s bad, Mr. Belinkie?

Of course, Matthew does realize that the law is unjust, so he instead proposes “requiring video-sharing sites to monitor the content they host”. He dismisses Cory’s concern that doing so would be a very bad idea. Well, how about the EFF’s concern that secondary infringement is a bad idea? They have consistently explained why requiring this kind of monitoring is dangerous, and they have shown that it really does lead to the chilling effects portrayed in “Pirate Cinema” (in the book, whole sites shut themselves down to avoid infringement; in reality, whole sites shut themselves down to avoid infringement).

Matthew then proposes “imprisoning the most egregious downloaders”. Well, that’s been tried, too. Consider the following:
– Demanding a jail sentence for distributing subtitle files.
– Sending DHS agents to raid a site that linked to hip-hop mix tapes.
– Accidentally seizing 84,000 harmless subdomains and branding them all as child pornography sites.
– Fining one woman 1.9 million dollars for copying 24 songs.
– Sentencing a guy to six months in jail for recording four movies with his phone camera.
– Sentencing a depressed grandmother to three years in jail for filesharing.
– Trying to get a guy extradited and jailed for efficiently linking to infringing material.
– Comparing the Betamax to a serial killer, because it was just going to murder the film industry’s profits.
– Threatening a computer programmer with 35 years in prison and a million-dollar fine for downloading too many JSTOR articles.
– Prosecuting a researcher for explaining how to circumvent certain types of encryption (an activity that was fully legal in the country where the guy actually did it)
– And then freezing millions of dollars’ worth of assets, illegally spying, serving an illegal warrant, concealing evidence, destroying evidenceforcibly raiding a home, and then suppressing images of that home raid, all in pursuit of one fat rich guy accused of helping people copy their files.

Matthew Belinkie complains that most of the “pirates” in the book are “just innocent folks chewed up by a heartless system” and accuses Cory of “stacking his deck” and making his villains “comically evil”, but if the above examples are any indication, Cory’s being true to life, and Matthew is criticizing Cory for writing fiction that fails to fit the rose-colored-glasses version of “reality” that Matthew is choosing to believe.

Matthew also refuses to see the more indirect harms that copyright enforcement can do. I quote:

This would be a great speech if it were about internet censorship, but it’s about piracy. She’s saying the people downloading Skyfall on opening weekend are the new Da Vincis, and those who try to fight it are trying to send us back to the Dark Ages. LITERALLY the Dark Ages. (In the interest of being as fair to Doctorow as I can, his argument is probably more like: “In order to stop the people downloading Skyfall, you will also inadvertently stop the new Da Vincis, and therefore inadvertently send us back to the Dark Ages.” But that’s still ridiculous hyperbole.)

Hyperbole? Yes. Ridiculous? No. The DMCA, which was advertised as a way to prevent copyright infringement, has proven to be excellent at hampering research and competition. “Censorware” programs are great at fighting against privacy and anonymity. The “third party doctrine” has hampered the free press. Publishers have actively prevented scientists from sharing their own research. I have argued on this blog that journalists and filesharers are natural allies, because both of them like sharing information that powerful people don’t want to let them share, and I have also discussed the other ways in which copyright hampers innovation. This is what is actually happening. Matthew Belinkie can credibly argue that “Pirate Cinema” is badly written, but he cannot credibly argue that Cory is wrong.

This kind of ignorance isn’t excusable in a guy who says he has an “interest in Hollywood movie mashups”, and who writes for a site that prides itself on applying critical thought to popular culture (check out this article, hosted on the very same site, describing the problems with existing copyright law and with the direction in which the law is changing). This ignorance isn’t excusable after ACTA and SOPA, and let’s not forget the infamous White Paper. But in spite of all this, and in spite of all the information already available to him (most of the stories I’ve linked to in this article were published before Matthew published his critique, meaning that he could have found them if he had looked), Matthew Belinkie does not know what is going on. He is ignorant without excuse, and I don’t know why.

But what really baffles me about Matthew Belinkie is the following little story, here in his own words:

I’ve seen it at work with my own stuff. Way back in 2008, I made a video of an actual seal singing the Seal song “Kiss From A Rose.” It was immediately blocked for copyright infringement. Four years later, I got an email from YouTube that said the video was live again, but with an ad and a link to iTunes. Warner Media Group gets a tiny bit of cash, and I get to share my video. This is a win-win! And the fact that it’s happening after four years leads me to believe that Big Content is growing MORE tolerant of remix culture, not less. So when Trent’s lawyers are claiming that the film studios are desperate to stop his remixes of old movies most people have never heard of, I’m skeptical.

Did you catch that? He created a video – a harmless, silly little video – and shared it with the world, and then he got blocked for four years. For four years, the big guys just sat on it, silently declaring, “You have no right to share that. You don’t own it; we do.” Then finally, they relented, but only on the condition that they get to directly profit from it (iTunes link and ad revenue). In other words, they took away his rights and then sold his rights back to him. And this is his happy ending. This is his “win-win”.

Matthew claims that “Pirate Cinema” makes him “Root for Big Content”, but as far as I can tell, Belinkie was already rooting for Big Content. He compares filesharing to stealing cars and claims: “without copyright law, none of those movies [copied and remixed by the characters]…would have been made in the first place”. In other words, “copyright creates content”, and without content, why, Matthew wouldn’t have any movies to mash up in his own videos! But there is good reason to doubt this. It is probably true that most movies would not get made without money and the profit motive, but there are ways of getting paid without copyright, and copyright’s not actually that great at paying artists, anyway (no, seriously, do some research). But Matthew Belinkie does not dare to contemplate any of this. He has sided with the monopolists and their lobbyists, the same ones who think that all MP3s are criminal. I wish I knew why.

“Pirate Cinema” may or may not be a steaming pile of a book, but Matthew Belinkie’s real problem with it isn’t how it’s written. It’s that it’s true, and Matthew doesn’t want to believe it.

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