Perhaps PIPA makes people pay the piper?

“Hail, Poetry, thou heav’n-born maid!
Thou gildest e’en the pirate’s trade.”
                                   –W.S. Gilbert. The Pirates of Penzance. Act I.

Ah, but what of those pirates who steal not only money, but Poetry itself? Old Gilbert went to extreme lengths to thwart those who tried to pirate his and Arthur Sullivan’s light operas. And with good reason; after all, they worked hard to produce their delightful works; it is hardly fair that someone should come and make use of their ideas without paying them.

After all, if they couldn’t make money off their first few operas, maybe Gilbert would have gone back to being a lawyer, and perhaps Sullivan would have gone back to writing hymns, and thus the world would have been without Iolanthe, The Mikado, Ruddigore etc.

Is this not also a danger when people pirate art nowadays?  Freddie DeBoer makes some interesting points about the SOPA and PIPA bills, pointing out that, after all, it might end up damaging the culture:

“At some point, you have to ask: do people who produce the cultural and media objects we love deserve to be compensated for their work? And will those cultural and media objects continue to be created if the answer is no?”

Well, he’s quite right. It reminds me of the debate game designer Chris Avellone started about a month ago when he said he hoped that “digital distribution stabs the used game market in the heart“.  Which prompted Twitter user “YouAreNotAllBoring” to ask him: “Why do you want to limit the poors[sic] access to culture?” But, since the people who make the games do not see the money from people buying them used, there is a reason for designers to hate the used game market.

The used game market isn’t the same thing as piracy, but it raises some similar questions. To DeBoer’s first question I think we would all agree the answer is “yes”, but strangely, the answer to his second question, I believe is also “yes”.  A heavily qualified “yes”, admittedly, but still a “yes”.

As I see it, many artists will basically continue to produce art as long as it is physically possible for them to do so, whether they suffer material hardship or reap rewards. They are just driven to produce artwork for love of  it. The phrase “starving artist” exists for a reason. However, I don’t wish to imply that this is desirable, or that it is the optimal outcome for the market. Clearly, it isn’t. Obviously, if no artist is compensated for his or her work, it will decrease the supply of artworks. Though it will not drive it to all the way zero, I suspect.

This is simply a question of economic equilibrium, however. Once the concept of economic justice is introduced the question gets much more complicated. In my estimation, this concept makes it into a zero-sum game. If our artists win more compensation, our poor people are deprived of culture, and vice-versa.

Take public libraries, for instance: they provide the poor with a way to gain access to valuable works of culture and knowledge. Yet, if I read a book at the library that someone donated, am I not getting something for free? I am benefiting from that author’s work despite not paying for it. Unfairness remains.

But piracy is, of course, something even more disturbing. After all, it’s stealing, and if even if you argue that it is stealing of the “Robin Hood” variety, there is something even more disturbing about stealing works of expression than stealing money. Art, media, are culture are supposed to be an expression of deep feelings, a work of creativity that comes from–for lack of a better word–the soul. To steal that seems pretty low.

I don’t agree with DeBoer’s sentiment that the opposition to the SOPA and PIPA was out of proportion. The fact that a site could be shut down for “facilitating” piracy is what got me. “Facilitating” is an interesting word. It can be interpreted a lot of ways. And maybe it’s my libertarian instincts kicking in, but I just don’t feel comfortable about an entity having the ability to censor things on such a pretext.

(Also, as I said, we liberals must recall that Rupert Murdoch was for these laws. Rupert Murdoch is not really an artist. It is true that he employs many an artist, but they are artists only in a very specific medium which I will not name here.)

As you can see, what’s the issue of who deserves what is introduced, the problem becomes very difficult, because it seems like the people who make this content deserve to be compensated for it, but at the same time, I think most people feel that everyone deserves to see it. Even the creators themselves would like for as many people as possible to see it purely as a matter of pride, though they balance that against whether they can make money off of it.

One possible solution that has been discussed before on this blog is government-sponsored art. But this leads to an even more immediate threat of censorship and propaganda than government regulations to prevent piracy.


  1. I would say that if art truly comes from the soul, then isn't it fair to assume that the recompense for it should come from the same source as well? For example, when R. A. Wilson was dying and it was a serious risk of his eviction from the apartment he lived in, those who loved his writings had quickly gathered the necessary money through the internet. I am not saying that RAW didn't deserve even more money – everyone does, in fact – but this is not just a problem of starving artists.

  2. I don't disagree with that. But let me just play Devil's Advocate. Artists, especially in collaborative arts like film, theater and sometimes music, may need to have a way of paying back those who make their art possible. A film director might be in it for the spiritual rewards and the love of his fans, but chances are some, probably most of the people who work on his films, are just in it for the money, and don't care about the art of it. they wanted to be paid in cash–and, more to the point, they demand a price as dictated by the market.I figure this is less of an issue for writers, poets and painters, I suspect, but I think the SOPA and PIPA bills were targeting piracy mainly of the former types of work.

  3. Sure, and you could mention monumental sculpture and architecture as well. This is the reason why those arts are the most conservative – they heavily rely on the rich and powerful. But since they are conservative, it doesn’t especially matter that they are not shared so freely as it might be. What’s important here is that people should have access to everything authentic, outlandish, fresh, and truly modern in art.On the other hand, some indie movies, despite their technical flaws, poor acting, etc., are so good that it raises a question whether those expensive cinematic features are truly necessary. At least Maya Deren had spent on her first film just about $250 in the 40s, and it was incredible.Of course, I am not going to say that a commercial movie can’t be great, authentic, modern, etc. Exceptions proliferate everywhere, and this is good.One of the most unpleasant things about all this is when some copyright holder behaves like the fabled dog in the manger. For example, all Christopher Moore’s novels have been sold for films, but where are those films? Or it is a very common story when a long out-of-print music album isn’t reprinted because of the strange policy of the right owner.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?