8 februari 2007
Ikväll flyger jag till Amsterdam och några dagars förberedande möte för ”The Oil of the 21st Century. Perspectives on Intellectual Property” – ett ambitiöst projekt som ska att utmynna i en stor tillställning i Berlin i september detta år. Inriktningen framgår av följande text som skickats ut i förväg:
”Intellectual Property is the oil of the 21st century” – this quote by Mark Getty, chairman of Getty Images, one of the world’s largest Intellectual Proprietors, offers a unique perspective on the current conflicts around copyrights, patents and trademarks. Not only does it open up the complete panorama of conceptual confusion that surrounds this relatively new and rather hallucinatory form of property – it must also be understood as a direct declaration of war.
The ”War Against Piracy” – a preventive, permanent and panic-driven battle that defies the traditional logic of warfare – is only one of the many strange and contradictory crusades that currently take place at the new frontier of Intellectual Property. Under the banner of the ”Information Society”, a cartel of corporate knowledge distributors struggle to maintain their exclusive right to the exploitation and commodification of the informational resources of the world. With their campaign for ”Digital Rights Management”, the copyright industries attempt to simultaneously outlaw the Universal Computer, revoke the Internet and suspend the fundamental laws of information. Under the pretext of the ”Creative Commons”, an emerging middle class of Intellectual Proprietors fights an uphill battle against the new and increasingly popular forms of networked production that threaten the regimes of individual authorship and legal control. And as it envisions itself drilling for ”the oil of the 21st century”, the venture capital that fuels the quest for properties yet undiscovered has no choice but to extend the battlefield even further, far beyond the realm of the immaterial, deep into the world of machines, the human body, and the biosphere.
But while Intellectual Property struggles to conquer our hearts and minds, ideas still improve, and technology participates in the improvement. On all fronts, the enormous effort towards expropriation and privatization of public propery is met with a strange kind of almost automatic resistance. If piracy – the spontaneously organized, massively distributed and not necessarily noble reappropriation and redistribution of the Commons – seems necessary today, then because technological progress implies it.
Technological progress – from the Printing Press to the BitTorrent protocol – is what essentially drives cultural development and social change, what makes it possible to share ideas, embrace expressions, improve inventions and correct the works of the past. Human history is the history of copying, and the entirely defensive and desperate attempt to stall its advancement by the means of Intellectual Property – the proposition to ressurect the dead as rights holders and turn the living into their licensees – only indicates how profoundly recent advancements in copying technology, the adaptability and scalability they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, are about to change the order of things. What lies at the core of the conflict is the emergence of new modes of subjectivation that escape the globally dominant mode of production. The spectre that is haunting Intellectual Proprietors world-wide is no longer just the much-lamented ”death of the author”, but the becoming-producer and becoming-distributor of the capitalist consumer.
The world has irrevocably entered the age of digital reproduction, and it is time to revisit the questions that Walter Benjamin raised in the light of photography and film: how to reaffirm the positive potential and promise that lies in today’s means of reproduction, how to refuse the artificial scarcity that is being created as an attempt to contain the uncontrolled circulation of cultural commodities, how to resist the rhetoric of warfare that only articulates the discrepancy between the wealth of technical possibilites and the poverty of their use, and how to renew the people’s legitimate claim to copy, to be copied, and to change property relations.
In order to deconstruct – and to develop radically different perspectives on – the ”oil of the 21st century”, there is an urgent need for approaches that provide fewer answers and more questions, produce less opinion and more curiosity. The coils of the serpent are even more complex than the burrows of the molehill, and the task is to trace, with the same bewilderement that befell Franz Kafka at the advent of the modern juridical bureaucracies, the monstruous, absurd and often outright hilarious legal procedures and protocols of the Intellectual Property Era.
The Oil of the 21st Century drivs av Bootlab i samarbete med The Thing, Waag Society och indiska Sarai, och med ekonomiskt stöd av Kulturstiftung des Bundes.
För den som råkar befinna sig i Amsterdam på lördag kväll, kan nämnas att det då blir ett öppet möte med presentation av projektet, klockan 20 på Waag.
27 januari 2007
One of the participiants was Shuddhabrata Sengupta (Sarai/Raqs, New Dehli), who is by a coincidence also participating in an exhibition at Lunds konsthall which opened last week. (Lars Vilks heavily criticizes the curatorial pretentions.)
Shuddha wrote a summary of our discussions in Amsterdam in the form of a very special letter, elaborating the refusal of whitewashing the darker shades of the commons. Some quotes:
Dear Inhabitants of the ‘legal’ Commons,The whole letter is now posted on Nettime, and now also published in a reader, In the Shade of the Commons, also featuring texts by Lawrence Liang about pirate aesthetics, Jamie King about gang power, Felix Stalder on open culture, Saskia Sassen on urban topographies, and many more. You can download the book as PDF.
We appreciate and admire the determination with which you nurture your garden of licences. The proliferation and variety of flowering contracts and clauses in your hothouses is astounding. But we find the paradox of a space that is called a commons and yet so fenced in, and in so many ways, somewhat intriguing.
Your ‘commons’ is not a place that we can share in easily. Because, often, when you ask us for what we ‘own’, we have to turn away from your enquiring gaze. We own very little, and the little that we own is itself often under dispute, because no one has bothered to keep a detailed enough record of provenances. In these circumstances, if we had listen to your stipulation to share only that which we own, hardly anything would have been passed around. And for life to continue, things have to pass around. So we share a lot of things that we have never owned. They are ‘borrowed’.
You call this piracy. Perhaps it is piracy. But we have to think of consequences. The consequences of absences of the infrastructures that make a culture of sharing that is also a culture of legality possible. In the absence of those infrastructures, we have to rely on other mechanisms. When you do not have a public library, you have to invent one on the street, with all the books that you can muster, with everything you can beg, or borrow. Or steal.
All we ask, dear inhabitants of the ‘legal’ commons, is for you to let us be. To be a little cautious before you condemn us. A world without our secret public libraries would be a poorer world. It would be a world in which very few people read very few books, and only those who could own things were the ones who could share them. It would also mean a world in which, eventually, very few people write books. So instead of more, there would in the end be less culture to go around.
Learn about us by all means if you must, argue with us by all means, but do not rush to destroy the wilderness we inhabit. We admire your carefully cultivated garden. We know it is not easy for you to let us enter that space. We understand and respect that. We do not ask to be appreciated in return for the fact that we prefer hiding in the undergrowth of culture. All we ask for is the benevolence of your indifference. That will do for now.
We remain, yours
Denizens of Non Legal Commons, and those who travel to and from them.Based on discussions among: Shaina Anand, Namita Malhotra, Paul Keller, Lawrence Liang, Bjorn Wijers, Patrice Riemens, Monica Narula, Rasmus Fleischer, Palle Torsson, Jan Gerber, Sebastian Lütgert, Toni Prug, Vera Franz, Konrad Becker & Tabatabai
27 januari 2007
Jonas Andersson from the Liquid Culture crew at Goldsmiths College has written a piece in response to the published version of a presentation we held at 22C3 in Berlin just over a year ago, where we presented some concepts in relation to Piratbyran‘s activities.
This response is published as a chapter in a recent book, under the name The Pirate Bay and the ethos of sharing [pdf]. I find some of it worth commenting – in English, for once – and if some if it might be about details, it’s only in order to try to highlight how our approaches are different (but not opposed).
Rasmus Fleischer and Palle Torsson — the authors behind the influential ‘grey commons’ speech — insist on talking about file-sharing as a horizontal activity; /…/ They thus equate ‘grey’ /…/ with the blurring of distinction between consumers and producers (they actually hold that the demarcation between these two is ‘impossible to institutionalize’).What does it mean that the distinction between ”consumers” and ”producers” is impossible to institutionalize? Simply take a look at the existing copyright collectives. All the billions they collect by license fees on music in public places, on online streaming services like Last.fm, from cassette tapes and MP3 players. The money is supposed to ”compensate the copyright holders”, but the only way to identify any formal approximate of the group of humans known as the cultural producers, the systems have to rely on playlists from (highly formatted) FM radio stations. That, I’d say, is proof that such a distinction is impossible to institutionalize.
I see this refusal to distinguish between ‘consumers’ and ‘producers’ as a strategic, arguably even propagandistic move
But it certainly does not mean that we today live in a post-modern world where every instance of cultural consumption should be regarded equally ”productive” as any traditional authorship.
I think that Jonas Andersson reads us through a lens heavily influenced by the British cultural studies tradition, thus understanding the Grey Commons speech as an ”attempt at a positive retribution of the productive nature of consumption”. But I’m not so sure about that. Maybe it’s rather the other way around: The consuming nature of production (a point where we both nod towards Walter Benjamin). It’s exactly, as Jonas Andersson write, about ”consumption so thorough, intense, dedicated that it goes into overdrive, becomes explicitly productive”.
In a later lecture, I characterized ”contemporary cultural production not as the opposite of consumption, but rather as a deviant kind of excessive and passionate consumption”. And that’s why I’m still not satisfied with asserting that consumption is ”the primer … the true locus of culture”. We agree that consumption and production are false opposites, but I would like to add that it’s mainly because it obscures the really much more useful concept: performing.
And that’s also what I want to point at, when Jonas Andersson defends the word ”content” against our indeed sweeping attack on it:
Even more problematic is the further assertion /…/ that we should refuse the term ‘content’ on the whole and instead talk about the Internet solely in terms of ‘communication’.The materiality is the performative – ”the art happens here” as elegantly visualizes in the Net Art Diagrams. Why communication should imply a denial of materiality is indeed hard to understand.
I find this not only counterintuitive but devaluing towards the work of us actual media producers: I for one certainly do not see my own creations as sheer ‘communication’ — I value them as true artefacts of beauty and non-conformance, although they are entirely digital. Eminent theorists like N. Katherine Hayles have shown that also virtual objects have materiality.
”Content” – the astracted object of copyright law – means immateriality, denial of context.
That abstracting ”content” means eliminating the performative aspect always present in media use, becomes extremely clear by reading governmental strategy papers about ”creative industries”, like the recent The economy of culture in Europe.
the entertainment industry /…/ treat p2p as a clear and present dangerThe formulation reveals a content-based definition of the entertainment industry which I find unfortunate, as it excludes everything from festivals and clubs to web communities (who largely affirm p2p, to some extent), only including the ”immaterial” businesses in the ”entertainment industry”.
Maybe it’s better to distinguish between a ”content industry” on one hand, and an ”entertainment sector” or ”cultural sector” on the other, with the important difference that this sector is to a large extent ”beyond measure”; immersed in a grey economy, and intermingled through performative acts with all other sectors of the economy.
Jonas Andersson warns against the risk of devaluating artworks and media producers; I rather see the risk of devaluating performances and performers, a risk that will probably remain strong as long as economic discussions about culture keep relating to the copyright discourse (if even in an antagonistic way!).
Of course a focus on communication, rather than content, does not make away with the need to talk about works of art. But we cannot wish away the fact that P2P networks are communication media, whee you are ”fetching data” – even if you do it in order to be ”copying artworks”.
File-sharing becomes a consumer tool”, Jonas writes. And that’s probably correct – sociologically speaking. But understanding the dynamics of the file-sharing phenomenon cannot be the work of social sciences alone.
Horizontality is not altruism. But it makes effective information infrastructures. Information does not want to be anything. But internet will not listen to reason.
It is not the matter of ‘rights,’ like in the alleged ‘right’ of acquiring information for free; /…/I couldn’t agree more.
To put it bluntly: People copy because they can. Now deal with it.
Play is the new grey!
This text is an edited conglomleration of two lectures held by Rasmus Fleischer in the autumn of 2006: Wizards of OS in Berlin (September 13) and Art|Net|Work at Aarhus university (October 25). Partly based on different earlier performances; concepts collaboratively developed around Piratbyrån.
Between artworks and networks:
Navigating through the crisis of copyright
Copying is an universal fact. It’s nothing we can decide for or against, but it can take place more or less public. That assumption is the simple basis for the concept of darknets.
Piracy in itself is not dependent on one single infrastructure. It finds lots of ways besides the open file-sharing networks, including physical offline routes. Thus the alternative to peer-to-peer piracy is not no piracy, but rather person-to-person piracy. Quite similar to the good old trading of cassette tapes, the digital person-to-person piracy can for example use local wireless networks, burned dvd:s, usb memory sticks, chat software or, not to forget, e-mail.
The attempts to stifle file-sharing networks aim at downscaling piracy. But in effect, it’s not so much about reducing the total quantity of copyrighted data that is exchanged, as it is about the scale of the networks themselves. Downscaling the swarms of peers accessing each others’ archives, while keeping bandwidth constant: That does not mean less piracy, but less pluralism in what is really shared.
If you have to rely on the archives of your personal social networks – that is, on darknets – then your available archive is so much more limited that in the end of the day, the dominant players of the copyright industry will keep a great amount of control over in what directions you will be able to develop your taste, even if they cannot inhibit the reproduction of their own ”content”.
That means a certain amount of predictability for them, which they regard as highly important. During the second half of the last century, they adapted business models that was all about finding more and more sophisticated methods for predicting and controlling tastes. Thus they tried to ensure that the huge investments made in an artist’s first hit would be more than returned by a whole series of albums that would sell well regardless of their quality.
In a larger perspective, the ongoing war against file-sharing networks is more a war for securing this predictability, market synchronization and control, than it is about defending copyrighted works against their unauthorised reproduction.
A pyramid. That is the default image used by the Motion Picture Association of America to visualize online piracy. The pyramid theory rhetorically suggests that anti-piracy measures can cut the head of piracy. By taking away the small number of ”suppliers”, the whole networks will dry up. Needless to say, this assumes that file-sharing networks are basically about distributing blockbuster movies, and only blockbuster movies. And indeed, if you’ve made your whole career in a business where the top ten is everything, then you will probably get such an impression when just looking at the top ten list of The Pirate Bay.
But what happens if we instead of the pyramid take the well-known image of the long tail, that lets us consider the quantitative relation between the few hits and the many non-hits? Then it becomes clear that the war against piracy is attacking the distribution of all those smaller niches that together makes up the majority of data in larger file-sharing networks – while pirated copies of the big hits are usually possible to get hold of anyway.
Copyright enforcement in the 21st century has changed its fundamental character. Anti-piracy today is not an all-out war against the unauthorised copying of copyrighted data. Such a war would be impossible to wage, as the weapons of mass reproduction are already decentralized into every single home. Rather, anti-piracy fights against the copying of uncopyrighted metadata; against the indexing, interlinking and globalizing of private archives. That is exactly what the ongoing case against The Pirate Bay is about: Not the distribution of copyrighted data itself – which takes place between millions of peers – but the distribution of metadata such as filenames, checksums and addresses.
Of course, copyright cannot today be about regulating protecting an exclusive right to copying. Using digital information, even if only visiting a website, means copying that information to another place, beyond the possible supervision of any copyright enforcer. A computer works by copying bits all the time: From ROM to RAM, from www to cache, from device to device or client to client or peer to peer. Wireless networks and portable devices complicates the question of how to distinguish local file transfers from file-sharing between different systems. Developments in network architectures, software and hardware, continue to undermine the foundations of copyright law.
Enforcement therefore has to rely on rather arbitrary metaphors, in order to single out the data replications that should be practically regulated. Consider the artificial distinction between ”downloading” and ”streaming” of music, regarded as equivalents to record distribution and radio broadcasting, respectively. These notions from one-way mass-media are forcefully applied to the internet, although it is basically the same data transfer that is taking place in both cases. The only difference between ”streaming” and ”downloading” lays in the software configuration at the receiving end, where the digital signal is either saved as a file or directly converted to an analog output.
In order to understand the permanented crisis of the copyright system, we can identify three intersections, three conceptual divisions in a complex relationship to each other. They have never been fixed, but without a relative stability, without a basic discoursive agreement about where to draw these lines in any given context, the copyright system does in fact collapse.
Question: What is a copy?
In a social network, it’s unquestionably legal to invite some friends to watch tv and listen to music in your private home, without permission from any rights holder. But how large and how open may an assembly be until the media use is defined as ”public”? The classroom and the small office, birthday parties and prayer meetings: these are just some examples of settings where the drawing of the private/public line has become an intricate task for copyright lawyers. But also for contemporary artists are playing with and questioning the same distinction.
In a network of electronic devices, the corresponding question is about deciding when copying transgresses some kind of private sphere, and if a data transfer should be considered permanent or temporary. Here we can situate the whole DRM debacle, usually questioned mainly because its inability to permit the fully legal private copying, like transferring music files from a computer to the same person’s portable player. Yet it’s less about binary permissions saying a simple ”yes” or ”no”, and more about how everyday habits are shaped by the much more subtle technical barriers and possibilities: Interfaces, standards, traffic shaping, asymmetric connections.
By enforcing distinctions between private and public, copyright operates in the Real.
Question: What is an artwork?
Copyright protects expressions but not ideas themselves; that is written into every copyright law. Without such an form/content-distinction, worked out in the late 18th century by philosophers like Johann Gottlieb Fichte, copyright would either implode or explode. You can’t claim copyright on facts, words, chords or colours, but if you take a suffucient number of them and combine them according to your own soul, you might pass the ”threshold of originality” into the realm of artworks.
But how high is this treshold? Dan Brown took a ready-made conspiracy theory from an earlier book as core plot for his own bestseller but was taken to court but freed. On the other hand, hip hop producers cannot use a few seconds of sampled sound without special permission – they did it in the 1980s, but since then the line between idea and expression in music has been redrawn, creating a harsher copyright climate.
There is not one single norm, but a lot of very different customs for different types of expression: For example, spoken words are not enclosed by copyright to any degree even close to that which regulates the use of musical sound, simply because a strict interpretation in that field would render mainstream journalism impossible. Photography has its own norms, very different from other visual arts.
When it comes to computer software or databases, the distinction between idea content and expression form gets terribly confused. Sampling, appropriation and remixing practices dispute the drawing of this line. One brilliant example is Sven König’s software art performance sCrAmBlEd?HaCkZ!, using spectral analysis to rebuild musical sounds with fragments of other musical sounds, developed from his initial intention to ”split the atom of copyright”. Constructing signifying chains by playing with notions of form and content, presenting the one as the other: Is that not a characteristic of much contemporary art, ever since Duchamp?
By enforcing distinctions between idea and expression, copyright operates in the Symbolic.
Question: What is an author?
References to an imagined class of ”the authors” seems to be inescapable in any discussion focusing on copyright. Thus, the fragmented reality of cultural production is replaced by a coherent whole. In reality there are old hitmakers and upcoming talents, pornographers and poets, living and dead, rich and poor. Ideology washes away all contrasts and instead presumes a common interest in strenghened copyright.
Legally, copyrights are assigned to individuals regardless of their profession; anyone who has ever written a line on the web is a copyright holder. However, during the 20th century a practical process of collectivization took place. The copyright system expanded through the institution of numerous collecting societies, assigned to collect license fees for broadcasting and public performances, in order to redistribute it to the actual rights holders.
With today’s statutory fees on storage media like cassette tapes and hard disks, the arbitrariness of this model takes on a whole new dimension. ”Compensation” cannot even theoretically be motivated by the real use of the storage media, but the money is given out to an imaginary class defined through arbitrary statistics from older media.
Dogmatic thinking about copyright presents producers and consumers as opposite poles, implicating the ideal of a ”balance”. But isn’t it more appropriate to characterize contemporary cultural production not as the opposite of consumption, but rather as a deviant kind of excessive and passionate consumption? Think about Walter Benjamin’s book collector who at a certain point turn to writing new books that he couldn’t acquire otherwise, or about the record collector whose passionate consumption smoothly glides into DJ:ing and further to producing new records.
As one and the same device can be used for both operations, read and write, the intermingling of roles gets even trickier. The difference between author and audience does not disappears, but it gets functional, varying from time to time. To produce and to consume are verbs, but copyright ideology treats them as nouns.
By enforcing distinctions between producer and consumer, copyright operates in the Imaginary.
Local/public, form/content, producer/consumer. It’s not that these three fundamental distinctions are disappearing, but they are deterritorialized and reterritorialized in ways far too complex, and far too different between different media and artforms, for one single system to handle. As the foundations are shaken and the concepts are getting fuzzy, a lots of greyzones are opening. We can recognize both a positive grey and a negative grey.
Intensified surveillance, scare tactics, paid infiltrators, pressure against hardware and network suppliers, spamming of networks with damaged files, screen dumps as legal evidence, private organizations building databases over suspected file-sharers, and of course the raid against The Pirate Bay: These are some examples of the negative greyzone in which anti-piracy activities are operating.
On the other hand, there is a positive grey that affirms the intermingling of concepts through undertakings that may be artistic or commercial, ethical or technological. Its basic characteristic is not anti-copyright, but rather an attitude of estrangement, or plain unconcern, towards copyright.
This positive greyzone connects all the everyday cultural exchanges that might formally constitute copyright infringement, but where no one would even care to claim that, as there is not even a dissatisfied rights holder to find. All the shades of grey between the penguin white of a creative commons licence and the pitch black of a zero day blockbuster release. Between what is formally allowed and what can practically be done, there is a space for multiplication of small habits that we call the Grey Commons.
In the middle of this sea of techno-cultural turbulence we have to navigate with the help of language. Copyfights are continuously raging at this conceptual level, deep under the legal and political surface. Rather than trying to solve the copyright issue, we try to keep it boiling and give space for a more shades of grey in the way we talk about everyday cultural life. Early compromises that tries to reform copyright law, usually just move the problem around, from one of the destabilized distinctions to another.
Some common dead-ends can be identified in contemporary discussions about peer-to-peer file-sharing. The first is consumerism – usually characterized by treating downloading as something separate from uploading. But file-sharing is a horizontal activity, where ”up” and ”down” are only very temporary distinctions, especially since the break-through of bittorrent swarming. Instead of justifying file-sharing as a response to high prices, we should focus on how it differs from the top-down record store model of selling pre-packaged information.
Another trap we see in so-called alternative compensations systems; institutional models promising to legalize filesharing by putting a fee on communication media and using the money to ”compensate” copyright holders. There is no need to polemicize, but interesting enough to explore the unarticulated assumptions of that discourse. For example how to draw the line between files worthy of compensation and ordinary webpages, or between authors and non-authors, or between local and public file transfers. There is simply no water-proof way of measuring what is shared on an entity like ”the internet”, wherever that ends or begins, in order to locate the authors that need ”compensation”.
The very focus on reforming the copyright law is itself a common trap. First of all, because sweeping discussions about one entity called ”copyright” obscures the plurality in how all the different cultural practises relate or do not relate to copyright. Some might need copyright, some might not – and some cultural forms we might not need to preserve at all.
Instead we should shift our attentions to the very particular and concrete ways in which cultural production and circulation works today and discuss each one on its own terms: How they relate to computer networks and how they can make themselves less dependent on copyright.
Focusing on the copyright law itself also bears the danger of ignoring the practical effects and non-effects of the law. No matter if you want a soft copyright that keeps some limited rights but also guarantees some freedom, or a hard copyright law banning everything unauthorized. The price for effective enforcement will be the same.
In any case, it demands that an individual can be made responsible for every single data transfer. Every IP address and every mobile device must be identified to a physical person. Implementing that means first of all a ban on all anonymous sharing of connectivity.
Any attempt to general enforcement of copyright in the context of computer networks necessarily leads to the same ambition: Defining, shaping and locking up the way our networks are organized and used. That (rather than any loss of privacy) is also the most significant aspect of the ongoing implementation of the European Data Retention Directive.
The big question taking shape on the horizon is: Free establishment of communications, or individualization of peers?
Free communications means the right of any peer in a network and to be the gateway to a new network – be it with a wireless router, or a web server allowing anyone to connect and communicate. That is not an utopia, but rather how the internet has developed as long as we know it.
Individualization of peers, on the other hand, means that any activity in the network has to be identified to a responsible individual.
Such an ambition demands that Internet Service Providers are held responsible of delivering the information about which individuals that have had access to a certain IP address, and that every web community needs to identify their users, which is clearly incompatible with free networking. The result is oligopolization: A few licensed network providers, connecting the many individualized network ends by over-prized asymmetrical connections.
If, on the other hand, network providers are not held responsible, then our networks have no ends and may expand in all kinds of unexpected and interesting directions, connecting network to network to network, with lots of inputs and outputs, giving a potential locality to the internet experience. But that also means the end of the state’s ambition to identify every person behind a certain IP address – for good and bad. Obviously, the copyright industry will fight with its claws for not giving up that control.
A computer is a machine that can simulate any other machine. Hence it can also do a perfect digital simulation of the copyright system. But the ideal notion of a pure ”content industry” implies copyright to be the only machinic configuration. It wants the computer to simulate only one machine – and we don’t mind if a network somtimes simulates a crappy machine, as long as it’s able to simulate good ones as well.
It’s not about finding the perfect solution to be used in the future, but to exploit the grey zone to allow for a thousand of unforeseeable futures to blossom, and to let art and music keep playing with the disctinctions that copyright instead wants to keep rigid. We will always choose a large amount of half-ass solutions over the one totalizing master plan. There are techno-cultural complexities beyond our human capacity to compute.
3 juni 2006
This is Piratbyrån‘s talk at the Reboot 8.0 conference, under the title The Grey Commons. This version somewhat extended, but with some parts about current events left out.
Held by Rasmus Fleischer. Large parts copypasted from the earlier speech in Berlin and co-written by Palle Torsson.
Corrections and slides to come.
Note: As there seems to be some confusion around this internationally, I should clarify that Piratbyrån is not a political party, so this is not a speech from The Pirate Party (Piratpartiet) that is another Swedish group. Piratbyrån is also not synonymous with The Pirate Bay, but the relationship is briefly explained in this text.
There has been a lot of grey zone activity the last few days. You know that if you’ve followed the story about the Swedish police seizing the servers of the Bittorrent indexing site The Pirate Bay, a raid initiated by Hollywood’s MPAA and probably through several more than dubious stages of political influence, raising more question marks for every hour.
Anti-piracy is operating in its own grey zone. But I would like to start this talk from another direction, the positively grey, which was what was I originally was invited to talk about here at Reboot, to sum up some of the crucial points in copyright’s current crisis.
We are the many shades of the Grey commons
DJ Danger Mouse took the vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album and re-mixed it with the Beatles’ White Album and in his creation, The Grey Album, he was ignoring copyright law.
The whole circulation of the Grey Album would never have been possible without P2P file-sharing. These networks exists in the same space as remix or mash-up culture; a space of production, of inspiration, obtaining, downloading – remixing and reinserting distribution and up-down-loading of data. This grey zone is fading in and out of historically dominant forms of circulations, slowly tearing them apart and replacing them with new ones, through rapidly multiplicating small habits.
It is not a grey commons in terms of the law, but inscribed in the technical habits we use every day. The grey is not optional, it is not here by an effort but rather as the shortest way to make life work with technology. The test, the query, the shading, the tuning and twisting is omnipresent; it is not something you can wish away. This is the way we live and come alive.
The Grey Album could escape the claws of copyright owners, because the channels of distribution where there and rather untouchable. But this claw is stretching to bring us all back to a time before internet, P2P file-sharing and the universal computer. Two days ago, there was a major clampdown in Sweden, with the police seizing a large part of the world’s filesharing infrastructure, The Pirate Bay, as well as silencing the voice of Piratbyrån. Of course only temporarily. We’ll get back to that. But below such dramatic outbursts, the copyfight is raging on a conceptual level, where the permanented crises of copyright is masked by images grounded in a one-way mass-medial logic, images with no room for greyscales.
In this dislocated situation piracy is about reestablishing connections that has been lost or cut-off. By developing the tools and discourses of file sharing, we try to expand the grey zones and make room for the unforeseeable. Instead of talking about things in the copyright industry’s universal terms, and instead shift the focus to the diverse reality of cultural circulation: what we call The Grey Commons.
On this Grey Thursday I would like to present som thoughts that have been cooking around projects like Piratbyrån and The Pirate Bay. About pirate ontologies, geneaologies and strategies for the grey commons.
Some words on the projects
Piratbyrån (The Pirate Association or Bureau of Piracy) in Sweden and Piratgruppen (The Pirate Group) in Denmark are sister organizations that tries to develop and deepen the questions about intellectual property and file sharing, through discussions, events, media appearances, publishing, lectures; developing and deepening
Piratbyrån was born in late summer 2003, emerging out partly from an integrated internet radio broadcast community and partly from IRC channels populated by the Swedish hacker community and demo-sceners. Piratbyrån was initiated to support the free copying of culture and has today evolved into a think-thank, running a community and an information site in Swedish with news, forums, articles, guides and a shop and has to date over 60000 members.
But two days ago, it was closed down by the Swedish police seizing the servers, that stood in the same server hall as The Pirate Bay, the world’s largest Bittorrent tracker. It was started by Piratbyrån in november 2003 but grew faster than anyone could imagine, therefore it was naturl to branch it off and today, The Pirate Bay is a fully independent entity, but in a very friendly relation to Piratbyrån.
[Presentation about the razzia and current events left out in this version.]
It’s not about downloading, stupid!
For a long time it was legal to download copyrighted files in Sweden, while the uploading of copyrighted material was criminal. But with the 2005 implementation of the EU copyright directive in Swedish law, also downloading was turned illegal. The anti-piracy lobby of course wanted everyone to believe that it suddenly has become very dangerous to be a file-sharer. While many voices have spoken up against the supposed “mass-criminalization of teenagers”, Piratbyrån has tried to present a more realistic picture.
Most file-sharers use bittorrent, where every downloader is also an uploader, and thus were probably in a formal sense criminals also before this law, that doesn’t really seem to have changed anything.
It is of big importance not to accept this terminology where “downloading” appears as some kind of activity completely separate from the uploading. We instead insist on talking about file-sharing as an horizontal activity.
Just like the activity of breathing includes both taking in air in the body and letting it out, filesharing has the same symmetry between up and down. Taking them apart, if even only through language, can only fill the purpose of replacing open exchange with centralized control.
Talking about ”downloading” obscures the fact that horizontal P2P-communication is essentialy different from vertical mass-distribution. It is not the same ”content” taking different paths to the ”consumer”. It is about different archives and different architectures.
There is a constant buzz, driven by mass media, about so called ”legal download services” for digital movies and music, presented as an alternative to P2P networks.
But the aim of ”legal download services” is not primarily selling movies or music. It is rather about selling language, selling ideology, appropriating the very notion of ”legal download”. In that ideology, ”legal” is understood as ”for payment”, and ”download” as an up-down-transfer from a central server offering a limited range of so-called ”content”, to a consumer.
So, we are totally mistaken if we think that we are criticising the content industry by saying that ”offering legal downloads is good, but DRM sucks and prices are too high…” etc – because with that terminology we have already swallowed the ontology of undifference.
Horizontal exchange or vertical distribution? Open and unstable archiving, or centralized and limited? Those are the fundamental questions. Much more fundamental than the questions asked in the discourses about accessibility, consumer rights, social justice or compensation.
Metadata, not copyrighted material, is the war on piracy’s target
Pirated copies will be produced, no matter the fate of file-sharing networks. We’re all too often today equalising unauthorised digital copying with file-sharing networks, but it’s a fact that a lot of the illicit warez arrives at the hard disk from a physical storage medium, like an usb-device, a borrowed cd or a burned dvd.
To the extent that some people may avoid P2P networks, research shows that they just reconnect to other sources of data – be it physical copying from family and friends or files exchanges with mail and chat clients. It’s all a piracy performed in a grey zone outside surveillance.
So the question is not piracy or not, nor if darknets are desirable or not, but what infrastructures piracy will take use of.
Burning cd’s or gmailing files or giving them away with services like Yousendit.com, means quite much that piracy is stuck in the same infrastructure that it had during the era of the cassette tape and the photocopier, only multiplied by digital effectivity. There is still a dependence of finding someone (a friend, a library) with access to the source. File-sharing networks, however, connects every private archive that in one particular moment is connected, into the largest and most accessible archive ever.
The war against file-sharing is essentially a war against the distribution of uncopyrighted metadata, not against the distribution of copyrighted material. It is about hindering the ever-present piracy from globalizing and open indexing, pushing it back to the family and the schoolyard and the workplace. Scaling-down, not in quantity but in network scale, from peer-to-peer to person-to-person.
The result is not less piracy, but less plurality in piracy. More dependence on personal contacts means that more iPods will be filled with mainstream music that is exposed through mass media, while less people will curiously sneak around shared folders just to try out stuff.
But the iPods will no doubt be filled anyway. And you can forget that it will be according to an ”one copy – one payment” formula.
Mental rights management
The grey zone also becomes visible if we consider how arbitrary the very definition of ”copying” is. How it is based upon outdated technical cathegories.
We emphasize and affirm the tendency that it is getting harder to distinguish between local transfers of data and “file sharing” between different systems, for example in wireless environments. Digital technology is built on copying bits, and internet is built on file-sharing.
Copying is always already there. The only thing copyright can do is to impose a moral differentiation between so-called normal workings and immoral.
For the copyright industry, it is of extreme importance to keep people uninformed of the real workings of networked computers. They want to make an artificial distinction between ”downloading” and ”streaming”, as equivalents to record distribution and radio broadcasting.
But – and we should keep insisting that – the only difference between ”streaming” and ”downloading” lies in the software configuration on the receiving end. However, copyright law will never be able to acknowledge that. It has to rely on fictions, on a kind of cognitive mapping, where notions valid for traditional one-way mass media are forcefully applied to the internet. We call it Mental Rights Management (and it is the very precondition for DRM).
It is essential for the copyright industry to keep the majority of computer users trapped in the belief that the ”window” of their web browser is exactly a window, through which they can look at information located elsewhere, under someone else’s control. Then our job is to clarify that everything you see on your screen or hear through your speakers, is already under your control.
Zeros and ones have no taste, smell or color – be they parts of pirated material or not. Therefore it is impossible to construct a computer that cannot reproduce and manipulate these zeros and ones – as such a machine would no longer be a computer, but something as grotesque as a digital simulation of the machines of the last century.
From one-way to read/write
But of course the aim of copyright is to do exactly that. Copyright was born in 18th century England in order to regulate the use of one specific machine, a machine that was expensive, few in numbers and that could write but not read, namely the printing press. Ever since, copyright laws have tried with varying success to make other machines imitate the characteristics of that one-way medium.
The concept was pretty easily adapted to the first technologies of sound and image recording, as grammophone and film entered around the turn of the last century, both being one-way media.
But in the seventies, machines that could both read and write, like the Xerox photocopier, the audiocassette and video recorders, came into the hands of a wider population. This transformed the production of culture, as well as the distribution. Remix, cut-up and mash-up cultures flourished, with early adopters like William S. Burroughs.
The record industry started to claim that home taping was killing music. Initially, they wanted to stop the cassette technology altogether. However, the common compromise solution in Western Europe gave the introduction of a special tax on magnetic tapes, in order to ”compensate” the copyright holders for a calculated loss of sales.
Since that time, the sampler, the CD-burner and portable memory devices has continued to make the possibilities greater. Now we’ve got the combination of home computers, broadband, network protocols and compression algorithms that together define what we know as P2P file sharing.
As we stand here today a fair question must be if a principle that was implemented for controlling printing presses in 18th century England should be the hole which our present world must circulate through.
The threefold division: A parenthesis in musical history
In the beginning, copyright was simply a regulation of the reproduction of printed matter. Anything that was not made with printing presses, was not really under copyright’s domains.
Sound was something essentialy fleeting and intangible, something that happened in real time. In particular cases, musical notation was used, but primarily as a simple memory-helper for musicians. The Western classical tradition, however, evolved on its on way, more and more dividing the role of the composer from the role of the performer, by making notation more and more exact. But music and musical performances had nothing to do with copyright. Only the printed graphical representations of music was affected.
But things changed with the new reproduction technologies for sound and film, some time roughly around year 1900. Legislation transformed as a response to the possibility to reproduce sounds and not only symbolic representations of sound. Copyright went from covering texts to covering Works.
A Work can be defined as the abstract product of any artistic creation, existing independently of its material forms.
Now, composers not only owned the symbolic representation of music in form of a musical score on a printed paper, but also the melodies themselves. The realm of copyright conquered two new territories: public performances and recorded music. But it was still based in the concept on written music.
The symbolic score secured its power over the real vibrations stored in records, as well as over the live music experience. That meant that a lot collecting societies had to be funded, responsible for channeling money to composers and publishers, who still were the only musical copyright holders.
Radio broadcasting meant a growing cake, and soon some musical performers and record companies demanded their share from it too. And they got it in the early 1960s, when the Rome Treaty gave international copyright two new layers: performer’s rights and producer’s rights.
Music copyright, and the whole phonogram economy, is still built on this threefold division between the composer, the performer, and the producer. Those are the three main roles, each one represented by a different collecting society, each getting their own share of money for every song played on the radio and every CD-R sold.
But since this system was institutionalised, the division itself has shown clear signs of dissolution, and in quite many cases, one can observe how all those three roles are converging into the figure of the bedroom producer.
A convergence driven by the development of recording and mixing technology, from the multitrack tape recorders of the 1960s, to the contemporary average computer able to simulate what only some years ago demanded very expensive studio time.
But lowered production costs wasn’t saluted by everyone.
Mechanical music menace
At first, synthesizers were marketed as a substitute for living musicians. Advertisements presented the Roland MC-8 Microcomposer as a huge orchestra. No wonder that the musicians’ trade unions, all over the world, depicted electronic instruments as a threat. They preserved the traumatic memories of when the introduction of talking films created mass unemplyment amongst cinema musicians, and held a strong belief that technical reproduction of music was a threatening rival to live performances.
During the early eighties, the American Federation of Musicians fought against use of synthesizers to mimic string and wind instruments, in the name of employment. One idea, seriously considerated in several countries, was to impose a special fee on synthesizers, to make them less attractive and to support orchestras with ”real” instruments.
The London chapter of the British musicians’ union went one step further, demanding a complete ban on synthesizers – which caused a split in the union, where musicians affirming electronics started their own Union of Sound Synthesists (USS).
Both electronic musicians and DJ:s were being labelled as sell-outs who played the game of commercial interests. The unionist resistance against the synthesizer, was rooted in ideas about how capitalists tries to lower production costs, just for their own profit.
The basis for that argument, was the hegemony of a very narrow definition of a musical performer: Only people mechanically controlling the production of sound in an instrument, like a violin or a saxophone.
But that narrow view was soon to be undermined by a number of experiments in hacking and indeterminacy, that explored the sonic machines as something else than just representational technologies. DJ:s hacked the turntable, transforming it into an instrument of musical production, and the discjockey became a cathegory of creators not fitting in any of the roles in the tripartite division of composers, musicians and producers.
The Roland TB-303 was designed to reproduce the sound of a bass-guitar, but was hard to configure and made interesting mistakes. Soon the misuse became the norm, as the unique squelching sounds produced by its filters came to define a whole genre of music – acid house.
Music is, as it were, performance
When making electronic music, the bedroom producer is programming patterns that are interpreted not by musicians but by machines, and then mixing the components together. But the bedroom producer is not really a composer and not a producer – but truly a performer.
In contrast to the institutionalised image of the musician interpreting the symbolic notes of a composer’s score, the bedroom producer interprets not symbols but real sound samples and the imaginary musical styles.
Recombining, refining. Redefining bugs to features. Performing a beat, that in real time is performed again by the dancing crowd, interpreting sounds into bodily movements. Or maybe recorded, encoded as MP3, copied though Soulseek, and psychogeographically performed by playlist fanatics. Music is, as it were, performance. Even the uses of recorded sound must today be understood as real-time experiences – if we are not to be stuck in a dead-end road like the musician’s unions fighting the synthesizer.
Similar tendencies – with selection and recombination as an ever more important creative role – can be seen everywhere on the artistic fields. Without openly confronting copyright law at all, these practices subtly marks out a line of flight. Along that line, creativity and artistic interpretation migrates out from the realm of copyright, leaving its gateways to the realm of semantics wide open and leaking.
Beyond the consumer/producer-dichotomy
The copyright industry today likes to present the problem as if internet were just a way for so-called “consumers” to get so-called ”content”, and that we now just got to have ”a reasonable distribution” of money between ISP:s and content industry. But we must never fall in that trap, and we can avoid it by refusing to talk about “content” altogether. Instead, we talk about internet as communication.
Therefore, it is totally wrong to regard our role as to represent “consumer interests”. On the contrary, it’s all about escaping the forceful division of humanity into the two groups ”producers” and ”consumers” that copyrights produces in different ways.
An obvious example is the movie industry’s bizarre lobbying to “plug the analog hole”, by introducing a law banning video equipment able to rip analog media. The law proposal put forward by the MPAA mentions that so-called professional producers of course should have a license to use these video cards anyway. The effect would of course be an extreme consolidation of the split between producers and users.
But so-called ”alternative compensation systems”, that some voices put forward as a progressive alternative to DRM and mass-criminalization, they are no less reproducing this split. The idea is usually to impose a special fee on every internet connection, so that a bureaucracy could channel the money to publishers and other rights holders.
This way we can save both the copyright system and file sharing, says amongst others Lawrence Lessig, the EFF, and the Swedish Green party. However, none of them likes to specify exactly how it should be decided which creators that should get money. If book authors should get compensation when their books are digitally transmitted, why should not bloggers get a part of this compensation as well? So, for the very notion of ”compensation” to work, there must be someone filtering out the ”worthy” forms of artistic creation from ”unworthy”. (Or the system could give every internet user money for every line they are writing in a chat, but that would maybe better be called an universal basic income.)
This dilemma also illustrates the schizophrenic nature of industry. Companies like Microsoft and Sony on one hand tries to use DRM to block out independent cultural production. But on the other, they are already totally dependent of what they call “user-generated content”.
Clever entrepreneurs of course do understand that internet business is not about selling information. It is about selling the possibility to interact. Overcoming the split between producers and consumers is not some utopia of a world to come, but a necessity to let communication media be communication media instead of simulating one-way media.
Copyright’s three points of crisis
I have mentioned two key points in copyrights’ permanent crisis, points where concepts that where evolved to handle the separated flows of one-way mass-media clashes with the reality of networked computers.
One was the fact that the very concept of copying is rather arbitrary when it comes to digital technology, as using digital information already implicates that it is copied. Another was the extreme problems with institutionalizing a producer/consumer-division, inside a media technology used for horizontal communication. Both anomalies seems totally unsolvable, from the perspective of copyright, and indicates that the copyfight is very unlikely to cool down. Now I will go on to the third point of crisis: the form/content dichotomy.
Three key points in copyright’s permanented crisis
- RAM/ROM; the very definition of ”copying” is arbitrary
- Consumer/producer; impossible to institutionalize, especially in communication media.
- Form/content; the distinction can only pass a digital cable as simulation
The form/content-division belongs in the age of postal distribution
Year 1793, Johan Gottlieb Fichte wrote a piece that for the first time clearly separated ”form” and ”content”, with the specific and successfull goal of establishing literary copyright. While an author’s ideas are the universal content of writing, he gives them an unique individual form, which is his intellectual property. Then, on another level, the copyrighted material itself usually is described as content, then understood as abstracted artefacts, not bound to a specific media form.
Communication media are, on a kind of third level, also logically divided between form and content; or, more specific, in address and message, or instruction and information. That division could seem totally unproblematic at Fichte’s times around year 1800, at the dawn of modern copyright and a couple of centuries after the postal system got public. The postal system has always built upon the physical separation between the address outside the envelope, and the message inside it, the latter hidden and legally protected.
Already with telephony, however, this separation wall started to leak. The ”hole” between form and content was signified by the frequency of 2600 Hz, used by phreakers to insert information that the central servers interpreted as instructions to connect calls for free. But, as the servers were still centralised, this tiny hole never grew to be a huge gap in the wall.
Networked computers, however, are not only media, but universal semiotic machines. Computers makes no difference between information and instruction, they’re storing text and code in just the same way: Form and content cannot be distinguished objectively.
But that distinction is what European politicians today are trying to resurrect, in the implementation of the data retention directive. What they say and probably believe, is that data retention has nothing to do with supervising what people say to each other on the net – it’s not about the content, only about who is communicating with who.
And that is maybe possible if this is restricted to e-mail communication using the SMTP protocol. But what for, if every criminal knows that they can just communicate in chatrooms or with community messages?
Either politicians must give up their stated ambition, or they are bound to go into ever more detailed regulation of specific internet protocols. But Sweden’s judiciary minister thomas Bodström, that has been spearheading the European plans for data retention, still talks about supervising only the address layer and not the content layer.
The important point, in criticising data retention and similar surveillance measures, is not about so called ”privacy” or ”personal integrity”. We would like to stress the importance of different media logics. The distinguishing of form and content is a physical part of an postal letter, but it cannot pass a data cable. The only way for it to pass, is as a simulation.
And every single regulation that is based on such a simulation, will inevitabely kill one thousand other possible simulations. It will block the exploring of one thousand paths.
Instead of assuming the holiness of privacy, we are questioning the technological consequences of data retention, in terms of detailled regulation of communication protocols, and the ban on anonymous internet connections.
The main problem with surveillance and with the war against filesharing, is maybe not about an unfair trespassing on what should belong to the individual subject – it is about an unfair and absurd attempt to turn networked computers into individual subjects.
A vital experiment of complexity
Maybe what is most important now, is to bypass the urge for solutions, for victory in battles or for compromise and stability.
For example, talking about how to ”compensate the creators” is to obscure the truth about the social production of culture. Such talk establishes the myth of copyright as some kind of ”wage” for artists, and the strange idea that real-time performative aspects of culture are secondary or unimportant.
And while some of the Creative Commons licenses can of course be usable sometimes, it would also be a wrong to believe in that a “some rights reserved”-approach would do anything to cool down the three anomalies mentioned before. Instead, that approach sometimes just seems to move the problem to another field: Instead of the producer/consumer-dilemma, you get something quite similar, namely the commercial/uncommercial dilemma.
Making general statements about the alternative to copyright always brings the danger of strengthening copyright’s universality claim. On the contrary, trying to keep the grey zone as open and wide as possible will almost automatically produce better conditions for cultural production to go beyond prevalent economic imperatives.
We think that our projects have generally succeeded in escaping the most obvious re-territorializations, like explaining file-sharing just as a response to expensive records. Instead, they aim is to open up and explore new grey zones.
The Pirate Bay is one example – a grey zone currently under attack. Much of the mass-medial reporting are still blind to the grey. Paradoxically, they represent the binary world in an all-too-binary way. In their black and white picture, the conflict is about certain ”content”; the picture is painted with The Pirate Bay on one hand and ”the rights holders” on the other. Everything that is not juridically plain white like a penguin, is in that picture black.
But we would like to direct the attention to the grey zone, that is all the movies and music and text on The Pirate Bay that no rights holder ever thinks about trying to stop, either because they affirm it as a possibility or because they really don’t care or because the works are actually orphaned.
The attack on Pirate Bay is an attack on that grey zone. Rather than securing their own copyrights, the movie industry are attacking an infrastructure that is needed for many kinds of independent production. They are not attacking piracy in general, as the sharing of digital files can always take its physical routes. They are attacking the very possibility to interconnect metadata of private archives. But while intellectual property will surely continue to be a battleground for major clampdowns in our society, there will always be enumerable lots of open ways.
The drive of discovering, thinking and inventing alternative processes of production is the affirmative power of life as a vital experiment of complexity. Internet piracy is all about desiring-production, and its long-term effects are beyond our human capacity to compute.