Torrent Parties

Piracy partyThe blog Torrent Freak is a relatively recent favorite of mine. I have read it sporadically for a while, but it seems like things have been heating up as of late in bitTorrent land as the MPAA and other interest groups start to ratchet up their war against bitTorrent (even the porn industry has joined the struggle for capital righteousness now!). Disney and the Porn Industry holding hands as they together fight for what’s right –I love that image it brings the real similarities of these seemingly disparate enterprises into sharp focus. Family values my ass!

Anyway, the point I am trying to make is that there seems to be an emergence of political parties know as Pirate Parties that are, according to Ernesto of Torrent Freak in this post, gaining a certain amount of popularity and momentum throughout Europe.

Europe’s Pirate Parties are on course with their pan-European electoral assault for the 2009 European Elections. To quote Rick Falkvinge: “There is a far better than average chance that this is becoming the next global political movement, and I’m going to claim it already is the next big political movement.”

Full post here.

I can’t help but think that this might be the beginning of a more dramatic change to the way in which we understand copyright and digital rights during the 21st century. In fact, this is all oddly reminiscent of those futuristic movies where the corporations control everything and the rebellion is an underground group of rebels or “Freedom Fighters” (not unlike the video game Freedom Fighters, however that features a Brooklyn plumber versus the Red Commie invasion of the USA -I love it!). Are we moving to a point where the struggles of the 21st century will be defined over issues like copyright, digital rights, and more general questions of control and power that are linked more specifically to corporate interests than that of governments, states, and more human (or humane) interests?

Granted, there are arguably much more dire struggles taking place throughout the globe premised on what might seem more fundamental issues, i.e., food, shelter, war, famine, basic human rights, the environment, dignity, a livable wage, etc. –but are these two struggles at all connected? I would argue that the battle against draconian copyright laws and intellectual property taken to its absurd extreme reflects an extremely important element of empire and the means through which culture has itself become a product that is exportable for a profit -which in turn often usurps and undermines local economies throughout the globe. I think the logic of ownership taken to its untenable extreme in the US, has serious implication for corporate foreign policy and its ability to conduct business with governments throughout the world. it is no secret the the MPAA was instrumental in organizing the recent raid against the Pirate Bay, and the implications of corporate America and other financially motivated interests dictating the discussion about copyright and intellectual property throughout the globe is an extremely dangerous precedent–if even by no means novel.

Now, at what point do we understand the intersection of bitTorrent and piracy? For many, the two have become conflated into synonyms. BitTorrent is just another instantiation of peer-2-peer networking, and peer-2-peer networking has always represented a threat to media and entertainment companies around the world because they cut the corporations out of the distribution model. Their control over their products is greatly curtailed and the ability for folks to share media illegally exploded. This is certainly a major issue for media companies and definitely a reason to re-think their economic model given the fact that the can not arrest millions of people- yet re-thinking the way they do business is something they are seemingly loathe to do. Fear and terror has become the modus operandi for organizations like the RIAA and the MPAA, and it is not a huge leap to understand the emergence of these pirate parties as a direct response to their draconian actions.

What further complicates this whole equation, which has become readily apparent recently, is that more and more people are interested in bitTorrent these days (and certain hosting companies and ISPs are doing everything they can to thwart this upsurge) for the simple reason that it is easier to get access to popular media via bitTorrent than it is through traditional models. Fascinating! What happens when the “black market” or the “pirates” or the “underground” (ironically all of these terms reflect an unnameable population of average people -much like the way terrorists and terrorism has been framed under our current state’s definitions) can deliver your needs more effectively and efficiently than the media distributors can? Well, you have a general breakdown in traditional distribution channels and heightened sense of the cultural, economic, and social struggles that are taking place in the world of popular media.

Here is a good example, a friend sent me a link yesterday to a C|Net article titled “TV Torrents: When ‘piracy’ is easier than legal purchase”. Here is a quick quote from the article that comes highly recommended:

It’s taken some time, but the ‘piracy’ path has finally gotten to be more user-friendly and easy to use than iTunes and the other pay-services. Miro, a multi-platform RSS and BitTorrent enabled media client is now very stable, polished and fast. Using a tool such as this, and a couple minutes of configuration to subscribe to your favorite shows, it’s now possible for users worldwide to wake up to the latest episode of The Daily Show, without paying a penny, or being locked into a restrictive DRM scheme. It’s still illegal of course, but that hasn’t stopped the millions of file sharers who have made BitTorrent responsible for more than 25% of all Internet traffic.

Twenty-five percent of all internet traffic! Insanity. More than that, the reason why iTunes and other pay services are no longer more efficient has everything to do with corporate ineptitude and greed, the article examines how NBC has abandoned iTunes and made a deal with Amazon’s Unbox (which supports Windows users and Tivo -what?!) effectively stranding millions of iPod users, not to mention the always already marginalized Linux geeks. So, rather than making their products more freely available to as many consumers as possible, the media companies are brokering deals that effectively eliminate the majority of its potential customers -is this even rational? Adam Smith where the hell are you?

Even better, this C|Net article offers the readers a how-to for using RSS, Miro and bitTorrent to get your favorite television show quickly, easily, cheaply, and illegally! So, does the fact that this issue is emerging onto the global stage in the form of
political parties surprise any one?

But what about thinking through the “legitimate” uses of bitTorrent? Now that is something that we have seen very little of. In fact, bitTorrent is a far more efficient use of network resources more generally. By sharing bits and pieces of files rather than one static download, you can distribute the downloading amongst hundreds or thousands of different files, allowing users to pull pieces from numerous sources. Might this be a solution to numerous universities network woes? It could be, but given the patina of piracy cast on bitTorrent, it will take a long time before most institutions realize this. Why aren’t we bitTorrenting all the unbelievable films available through the Internet Archive. Why isn’t the Internet Archive seeding them? How much faster would that notoriously slow site run? I would personally keep those files seeded for a long time for I fully believe it is a public service!

However, despite the general refusal to engage bitTorrent there is at least one university that is thinking through and imagining this technology. Have I told you recently how impressed I am with Harvard University lately? Mike Caulfield (I love that guy!) recently linked to their legal blogging policy, which will aid and abett all the little folks as well. Moreover, they are now taking on bitTorrent with their new peer-2-peer file sharing application Tribler. Torrent Freak led me to this application, and I would highly recommend anyone interested in the economic model Harvard is researching and experimenting with to read the amazing commentary on this Torrent Freak post. I really have to hand it to Harvard, and while I don’t necessarily agree with the economic model they are imagining, I do have to say that at least they have decided to imagine the implications of bitTorrent and encourage their campus to experiment with a technology that is without a doubt here to stay for a while, especially since we are increasingly being given fewer and fewer choices.

Update: Colleen Carmean linked to the US Pirate Party page in her post here. Nice find, Carmen, who knew? And I thought this was a only continental phenomenon. I can see the slogan now, IPU, or International Pirates of the World Unite! Where are the Canadians? I’m sure there is a vibrantly dangerous party lurking in our neighbor to the north.

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12 Responses to Torrent Parties

  1. Typing from sidekick – might be sloppy…

    But on social policy and copyright, I am reminded of Taleb’s Black Swan — because basically he says in things constrained by physicality the gaussian curve (which we associate with things like a large middle class for instance) rules. But with things without physical constraints you get the familiar valley with the extremes at either end.

    Acting is a good example. In the late 1800s most towns of size had a theater — which meant paradoxically that there were far far more working actors 150 years ago than there are today, even though the amount of GDP spent on entertainment has skyrocketed. Where does it go? Well, instead of supporting tens of thousands of actors making ends meet, it rewards the few at the top and throws the rest into restaurant work. The total amount of money has ggrown at obscene rates but we employ less people.

    So most industries may be going through similiar issues…and there may be similar lessons. One lesson from music and film is the more you protect copyright, the greater those disparities become. One great example is my hometown, which use to have numerous open mike nights until ASCAP came through and tried to extort a yearly fee from all these institutions (well bars, actually). Now we have no open mike nights. Which starves local culture of the material it needs to rebuild itself….

    Ok, now I’m rambling, and my thumbs hurt… the truth is life is good, but I can see where we might look toward 19th c. Models for inspiration…do we want a copyright and patent model that supports the current star system — and by star system I refer to things like prescription drugs as much as music and lit.

    In a world where we released the works of the beatles into public domain, or where a movie made 14 years ago became free, would we have more or less people working in these professions? Perhaps more importantly, would we have a better relationship to our culture…. now I’m fired up… maybe I’ll record my old folk songs and release them into creative commons……

  2. Tony D'Ambra says:

    bitTorrent users of the world unite?

    I am sorry but have you guys just discovered the market system? Pirate parties – give me a break! What has the internet done to deal with the real problems we face globally? Nothing much. As for bitTorrent…

    Obscene inequality, corporate greed, and environmental destruction are manifestations of the economic system that delivers the very media commodities you want to share.

    One issue parties are worse than useless, they are dangerous. They divert attention from the fundamentals that need to be understood and critiqued.

    And what is this stuff that we want to share anyway? It is mostly shit that serves to perpetuate ignorance and passivity.

  3. jimgroom says:

    Tony,

    That’s actually a pretty fair critique, although I think the relationship between the market, culture, and the shit you refer to is deeply linked to the notion of ownership that these parties will challenge, but by no means conquer. For I tend to agree with you that one platform parties are myopic at best, but I am more interested in what the surfacing of these parties suggests about the issues that will shape certain “core values” of the Western world such as ownership and property.

    In fact, your blog is one of the spaces I think could benefit immensely from re-imagining the length of copyright protection and the move of cultural works into the public domain. How many of those great Noirs (most of which are well over half-a-century old) that you write about so wonderfully on a regular basis are still under copyright, effectively preventing folks from freely accessing them? Or, as I think about often, prevent us from quoting them with the actual footage, rather than using the limits of textual description to describe the visual magic of these films. I don’t believe all of the works still under the protection of insane copyright laws are crap, in fact I think you write about so many of the amazing ones–and their are many more in a wide array of genres –and that’s just film! Didn’t you just write about Out of the Past and Double Indemnity–tell me these two don’t belong in the public domain by now!

    Shouldn’t we, after a reasonable period of time, have free access to these works of cultural magnificence? Not everything being produced in Western culture is equivalent to a Britney Spears song, nor is all the purported deficient work unworthy of examination on some level. As to the politics of the Pirate parties, I am not so much a “member” as an “interested party,” for like most folks in the Western world I consume culture regularly and would like to have a way to preserve that right under some negotiable guidelines.

  4. Tony D'Ambra says:

    Jim, there is a contradiction that we can’t escape, profits are necessary, even to an artisan, so in a capitalist society we have to respect the assertion that the owner of an item of intellectual property has the right to dictate its public use. You can’t have the cake and eat it too.

    I am happy to support pirating as a valid subversive response to big capital, but to argue that somehow it should be legalized is untenable unless you go the whole hog and abolish property rights altogether. But somehow I don’t think that is the Pirate Party platform.

    As Marx said, capitalism is adept at re-inventing itself, and I am sure the content producers’ distribution models will evolve by co-opting the technologies that will allow them to prosper. Look at the web. When I first logged-on in 1995, the potential for free expression was exciting. What de have now: little voices that struggle to be heard above the cacophony of big media portals and the lurid noises from all the porn sites, and the independent print media is dead or dying.

    When I disparaged content, I was referring to the vast volume of Torrent “traffic” in stuff that is of questionable cultural worth, not to the full body of popular culture.

  5. jimgroom says:

    Tony,

    Man, you’re making me work for a living and I love it 🙂

    I don’t think pirating is necessarily useful as an end in and of itself, I think it is a reflection of the current models of distribution and copyright that are apparently broken. And while profit is necessary, I think that there has to be some kind of agreement that once a work has had the opportunity to amass a profit, or fail miserably as fate may have it, there would be some obligation on the artist, company, artisan, or what have you to make their work available to the public, the folks upon which their fortunes depend upon. I think the idea that once classics of film, literature, music etc., have made their imprint on our culture and those involved have reaped their reward, that these works should be allowed the freedom to be reproduced and used in a variety of ways. This is not to say they still won’t be sold for a profit by folks who do something extraordinary with them (I mean Shakespeare has been in the public domain for a long, long time but publishers are still making a fortune off his genius). I guess my point is that we have gotten to the point where the individuals who consume a culture (and arguably in many ways also define it through that consumption -for consumpiton is not necessarily as passive as it might seem) are simultaneously forced to think of themselves as criminals in relationship to this culture due to the construct of property grafted upon music, film, artwork, etc.

    I actually agree with you that the current capitalist framework of culture will cannabalize itself. Increasingly, such laws and policies about property and profit margins have managed to choke out any signs of a once great tradition. I think Hollywood as a space of producing magic like it did in the 1920s 30s, 40s 50s, and even 70s is dead in the water predominantly because they have become so stuck in the logic of profit, international markets, and general global dominance. The same can be said for the current state of music as I see it.

    The real problem is that these media giants own much more than the last ten years of popular culture. Under the current laws that change as quickly as the seconds hand on a clock, they own just about the last century of culture and that is a truly disheartening. Our own culture is being sold back to us again and again and again, an endless loop of profits that has, at the same time, criminalized us for trying to do something beyond our consumption, or even in relationship to our consumption of it–that, for me, is the real root of the problem in my mind. And will Pirate Parties end this, no, I don’t think so, but they are one of the few voices to frame it as a real concern that will shape our future and our sense of culture over the next century and beyond, and that I heartily agree with.

  6. Tony D'Ambra says:

    Jim, I am a chronic contrarian 🙂 My compliments on your willingness to engage with your readers and defend your position with courtesy, rigour, and vigor.

  7. jimgroom says:

    Tony,

    I want more, this is what it is all about, and I appreciate your comments on a regular basis. You have helped make this blog much more than a lonely sounding board.

    So thanks for keeping me honest.

  8. enigmax says:

    Great to see you enjoy the site!

    enigmax // torrentfreak

  9. You are absolutely right that the struggles are closely connected. However, only a handful of people connect the dots that far.

    For instance, we also fight for people’s rights to manufacture medicine for their own use (patents are killing thousands of people every day), for their right to plant and cultivate seeds (again, patents), and for their right to privacy (basic democracy is at stake here).

    The conflict is much larger than file sharing and being able to see the latest Hollywood piece of 90-minute trash without buying a ticket. It is about control over humankind’s knowledge and culture. Whomever controls knowledge and culture, controls the world.

    “Food, shelter, war, famine, basic human rights, the environment, dignity, a livable wage, etc” — well, we don’t fight for the environment, or for a livable wage. Other people take that struggle. But yes, what happens to the other ones (food, shelter, war, famine, basic human rights…) will be direct consequences of the fight we have picked.

    / Rick Falkvinge (founder of pp)

  10. Tony D'Ambra says:

    Rick, how can you equate the struggle for basic human rights to your pp agenda, and just how will legalising piracy help the cause for justice?

    I would go on to argue that copyright is a basic right. I struggle to make a buck developing software as an independent vendor over the web. I can spend many hundreds of man-hours developing a product that will just as likely bomb as be successful. Don’t I have the right to protect the fruit of my labor? Piracy of my software is the same as stiffing a worker of a fair day’s pay.

  11. Tony, you need to read up on why copyright exists. It was never there for the individual creator, as you seem to believe.

    You also need to read up on what the COSTS of copyright are. A right does not exist in a vacuum.

    If you’re serious about understanding these matters, check a talk I did at Stanford. Google for Falkvinge Stanford Video.

    Rick

  12. Tony D'Ambra says:

    So I should work for nothing, so guys like you can tell me what I don’t know. As Felix Unger wrote…

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