Of Piracy, Laws and freedom of expression

When I was a kid (not that I have grown any mature) I used to plagiarise Richie Rich comic books to create my own hand sketched comic strips. I used to generically call my protagonist ‘Jack’. The ‘copied’ comic was drawn on center pages of my class notebook and I used to create 4 copies of it. I used to sell each copy at quarter of a Rupee. So much trouble for earning a buck to buy a little ‘Kulfi’ stick at the end of the day. The Cartoon Network was yet to arrive and not everyone had access to Richie Rich comic books. If I had copied ‘Chacha Chaudhry’ my little scheme would have never worked.

Modern day piracy has a lot to do with the feeling of serving the unprivileged than cheating the privileged. It is cool to say that I own all the original records of Frank Zappa and licensed remasters of Jefferson Airplane but for a child born in an isolation of a small town with no chain record stores around, belonging to a middle class nuclear family with no relatives bringing ‘stuff’ from ‘abroad’, good music is just good music and downloading is as good as walking into a Sears or a K-Mart.

Now there may be many opponents to what I say and I am sure they have good reasons too, which might include the RAND report that suggests the flow of money generated through piracy into supporting terrorism. My view is strictly personal and focused on smaller issues like what is the purview of ‘User Generated’ if what most people generate is actually a replication of or is ‘inspired by’ something that has been created by someone else? Who amongst us is a real genius when even Einstein would suggest that his work stands on the work of other great people before him.

Let’s imagine a world where we protect all the literature, license it, put a barcode and add a price-tag (wait a minute that sounds commercial). Should a kid be still allowed to borrow a story book from another? Let’s not even allow the kids to have a story telling session so that everyone has to buy the book to read the story and let’s make fun of whoever can’t afford it. That’s what is making big time rock & roll bands go nuts over file sharing at college campuses. Aren’t you guys going multi-platinum in-spite of the rampant piracy? Aren’t you satisfied with your villas, yachts and jets? Sorry boys! I will have to download your latest album unless you sell it at a shop around the corner away from my house at ‘India’ rates and not at ‘International’ rates. Otherwise the costs involved in acquiring your album would exceed my passion for your music.

The case of Governments against Social Media

For long the state owned media promoted the policies and agendas of the state. There were good people in power hence the intentions were right. With the rise of private sector and profit making came political corruption. Syndicated Media became a favourite tool of profit makers for mass hypnotism. With the sensationalism the idea of passive consumption was fully materialised but then something happened that the textbooks didn’t talk about! Along came ‘The Social Network’.

Social Network began as a fun place to be at. Hanging out with friends, sharing status updates, commenting, chatting, sharing photos and using emoticons to ‘express feelings’ did not initially culminate into any serious exchange of information or knowledge. Over some time, quite unexpectedly it became a platform for free speech, online activism and whistleblowing. Blogs, microblogs, wikis and media sharing websites like Youtube and flicker, became tools for sharing opinions and what only syndicated media could do some years ago was possible for every individual looking to reach out to the masses. Soon dissidents all over the world were starting their own movements and new revolutions were sweeping off autocratic regimes across the world. Clearly someone is not happy about it.

Anti Piracy Laws and Free media

Governments around the world are finding it difficult to monitor and control information on social media. Look at it from this point of view. The Authority is pervasive and wants to intrude further in your private lives but with social media everyone can intrude back into the Authority’s workings and ask questions. After forcing internet companies like Facebook and Google to comply with policies of the state they still find it difficult to control the usage and the outcome is Stop Online Piracy act(SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). If we can’t control it ‘why not just shut them down’ on the pretext of piracy?

Ironically one might learn more about SOPA and PIPA from Wikipedia than authority controlled sources. These acts if implemented will give the right to authorities to outlaw an entire website domain for a single ‘pirated’ content uploaded by a random user. It will enable them to block DNS tools and proxy servers used to circumvent content policing and censorship. This could on one hand effectively hamper the efforts of online/independent whistle-blowing via sites like Wikileaks and on the other, give totalitarian elements inspiration as to how free speech can be curbed. So forget about another Arab Spring!

Rupert Murdoch while referring to Youtube is insisting that “Google is the biggest pirate which let’s users upload unlicensed content and earns money by posting advertisements around them.” He definitely sounds indignant about social media snatching the monopolistic powers of his media empire in the winter of his life. Too bad he doesn’t own Youtube or else I doubt he would have bothered.

So all eyes on Google and Facebook (the biggest tenants of freedom of expression in modern times). Of course they need to play safe cause they have much to loose compared to Wikipedia which can afford to shut down for 24 hours in protest. Wikipedia’s anger is justified because if you come to think of it, you would not have started using Wikipedia so much if it was not free to use, and it would not have been free to use if it’s content was not user generated and the user generated content would not have been so rich if everything that’s uploaded was properly licensed.

If you say that the world is becoming smaller for piracy and soon everything would be ‘properly’ commercialized, I would quote a pirate – “The world is not getting smaller, there’s just less in it”


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