The Pirate Movement: defending file-sharing for all of us

“Megaupload is down!” a twitter user comments in anger. I quickly go to the safari web browser on my iPhone and try to load the page of megaupload.com and it says “Safari could not open the page because the server stopped responding.” Not long after I learned the founder of The Pirate Bay was in solitary confinement in Cambodia, which violates international law. All of these actions are not surprising at all. I have had some sort of fondness for those that defended file-sharing. One of my best activist friends had a dance party recently and he told me that his whole playlist was pirated, probably because he was a techie. Still, I remember before I got into college, there was a post on Facebook group (before I deleted my account, but that’s another story) about online downloading and people were saying how it was wrong in their minds, and I was about to go on there and defend it, but there were school administrators on there so I didn’t want to look like I was encouraging illegal activity. This is why in this article, I describe the movement as the “pirate movement” because of many in the movement call themselves “pirates.”

It is best to start with the depressing aspect of what has happened since the movement has begun with the idea of “electronic civil disobedience” or ECD in 1996. That term, coined in a book called Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas by Stefan Wray, was elaborated from what was mentioned in a TED talk the previous year. Wray described it as “The strategy and tactics of CD [Civil Disobedience] can still be useful beyond local actions, but only if they are used to block the flow of information rather than the flow of personnel.” Before I get into more specifics, I believe that the movement must be defined in terms of its institutions, which can include: Pirate Cinema, an independent worldwide cinema; the movement for an alternative to copyright which mostly centers around Creative Commons and is led by Lawrence Lessig among others; the open source movement, those that want open source technology; the free culture movement which objects to restrictive copyright laws; the Free Software movement founded by Richard Stallman including the idea of copyleft; Pirate Party International which is the banner under which the national “pirate parties” are under, a major force of the movement; The Pirate Bay which is in the heart of the movement; BitTorrent, DC++, Gnutella2, FrostWire, and isoHunt, major file-sharing sites online; Association des Audionautes, a French group that helps Internet users who share files over p2p networks; Torrent Freak which brings news about BitTorrent and torrents in general; and the parts of the blogosphere that write favorable articles.

Now, this movement, while having a wide berth of groups, should have not faith in the political system in helping them because it has been geared against them. In the U.S., the courts have ruled against them in: A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc. (allowing monied interests to sue Napster for “violating” copyright law), in Eldred v. Ashcroft (upholding the Copyright Term Extension Act a.k.a. the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act”), in MGM Studios, Inc. v. Grokster, Ltd. (peer-to-peer file sharers can sued for users causing “copyright infringement”), in Golan v. Holder (copyright can be extended to works that were previously in the public domain), in Capitol Records v. Thomas-Rasset (there is penalty of $9,250 per song downloaded), in Comcast Corp. v. FCC (Comcast can hinder the uploading of files to BitTorrent),  in UMG Recordings, Inc. v. MP3.com, Inc. (unauthorized copying of music CDs is “copyright infringement”), in Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. (sampling of music is “copyright infringement”), and in Call of the Wild Movie v. Does 1 (every BitTorrent user that downloaded also uploaded content, so users could be charged for “copyright infringement”). I don’t wish to get into the all the different laws that are against the movement, but I’ll mention a few (the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 in the UK, the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Australian Copyright Amendment Act 2006) and a few of the Music Industry organizations (MPAA, RIAA, IFPI, the Federation Against Copyright Theft, Center for Copyright Information and the World Anti-Piracy Observatory (WAPO)).

Hope for a better way forward comes from the past actions of movement itself, since its “founding” in 1996. Numerous file-sharing networks have been created, showing human ingenuity. In the early days of the movement, there was Mp3.com which was later gobbled by Big Business in 2003, another file-sharing network called NeoModus Direct Connect created by a high school student and the never-forgettable Napster. Even if these networks were destroyed by lawsuits brought on by Big Business, in their place popped up new networks like Gnutella and eDonkey2000, BitTorrent, FastTrack and the Pirate Bay. The latter two survived the lawsuits, but this didn’t stop the continuation of the trend. The year that eDonkey, a huge file-sharing network was brought down by RIAA (a music industry group), FrostWire was created (2004) as an alternative and activists engaged in violated the copyright of EMI on Danger Mouse’s The White Album by distributing music files in order to push for copyright reform and showcase their anti-copyright views. The same year, a Canadian court ruled in BMG Canada Inc. v. John Doe that putting files on a shared directory didn’t violate copyright and if one downloaded music for personal use, it was legal. Two years later was one of the strongest points of the movement: Kazaa, a file-sharing movement was created, an indie documentary, Steal This Film, which follows the movement was released on BitTorrent and the first Pirate party was created in Sweden which would later became more widespread. Despite the increased power given to the government under the PRO-IP Act (allows the Department of Justice (DOJ) to get involved in “prosecuting major civil cases against copyright infringers” and created a “copyright czar”) and the dirty three (Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), DOJ and the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (NIPRCC), using the authority of 18 USC § 981 – Civil forfeiture and 18 USC § 2323 – Forfeiture, destruction, and restitution, to seize and shut down websites, there was still light at the end of the tunnel. In 2009, a US District judge decided that “each illegal download does not necessarily equate to a lost sale,” which shows that “a sheer number of downloads doesn’t necessarily equal monetary losses.” Anonymous, part of the hacker movement, joined in to defend the pirate movement, tactics of Electronic Civil Disobedience against the sites of RIAA and MPAA. As LimeWire was shutdown by court injunction, FrostWire rose in popularity. The sharing of information couldn’t be stopped.

In the past two years, the assault by industry and the government had increased dramatically against the movement.  Facebook and Microsoft Instant Messenger where blocking links to The Pirate Bay and last May, ICE came out with a video saying piracy was wrong and they claimed it cost people jobs. But one YouTuber, Homer101010 countered this claim with his own video explaining how it was just “propaganda” because Hollywood movies rake in millions or billions of dollars in sales. He concluded that the only reason the industry was so concerned was because of their belief in the Gordon Gekko saying “greed is good…greed is right!” But this propaganda video is no surprise considering that according to Wired Magazine “top-ranking Obama administration officials, including the US copyright czar, played an active role in secret negotiations between Hollywood, the recording industry and ISPs to disrupt internet access for users suspected of violating copyright law, according to internal White House e-mails.” Then, in January, I wrote that “in the Obama Administration, 157,461 sites have been shutdown in the “war against online piracy”” which is more than any president in U.S. history, including Megaupload! Still, the glimmer of victory was on the horizon: even after the “Pirate Bay trial” in Sweden with four of the operators of The Pirate Bay found guilty of copyright infringement, this year, when Sweden’s Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, the case ended luckily for them. Months after the U.S. government sought to destroy Megaupload, Kim Dotcom and his friends are creating a new site that is a bit similar, called Mega except this one will in their words “solve the liability problems faced by cloud storage services, enhance the privacy rights of internet users, and provide themselves with a simple new business.”

You might ask, what about the people? What do they think? Well, in the United States, in 2002, Gallup found for 83% of 13-17 year olds it is acceptable morally to download “music from the Internet for free,” while adults were almost evenly divided;  in 2003, a CBS news poll said that 58% of Americans said it is acceptable to download music under certain circumstances, the same year, a CBS News /New York Times poll asked over 670 adults nationwide from 18 to about 30 years, 44% overall said sharing of music is sometimes acceptable but in another poll by the FOX News/Opinion Dynamics showed that 61% of those between ages 18-34 approved of “downloading music over the Internet.” In Sweden on the other hand, in a poll by a Swedish paper, the Local, it wrote that “over 75 percent of those asked” aging from 18-20 “said it was OK to download illegally.” MSNBC wrote in 2007, using data from a poll by a Toronto-based Research group, that “only 40 percent of Americans polled” said that “downloading copyrighted movies on the Internet was [a] very serious offense” and that a super-majority of “59 percent” polled “considered “parking in a fire lane” a more serious offense than movie downloading.”

These opinions show that even as the government as Stefan Wray noted, create “cyberpolice” and “private corporations…develop…their own electronic police forces” for “information surveillance [and] defense systems,” people are resilient. Wray also wrote of this, saying that the state would have to stir up hysteria about file-sharers, calling them “the incarnation of evil bent on the destruction of civilization,” which he says almost impossible to do. As a result, it is not a stretch to say that the pirate movement is defending file-sharing for every each one of us.

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