The pirate's manifesto

In my hometown there are two beautiful ancient movie theatres downtown. Years ago, Kerasotes owned both of them. They closed one and eventually sold it to some other group under some sort of contract that won't allow them to compete (i.e., they can only show independent films). They closed the other, and five years later it is still vacant on some of the most valuable and visible property in the entire city. Kerasotes also owns a pair of huge modern theatres on the outskirts of town that basically suck. So it happens that Kerasotes has a monopoly on legal presentation of mass market movies in my city, while simultaneously providing a completely crapulent experience.

There are two answers: I can either stop watching mass market movies or I can break the law. In either case, the poor decisions of Kerasotes have cost the studios my revenue (which to some extent they may have earned). So why should it compound the nuissance and deprive me of the movies? Pirate!

I own on the order of 200 CDs. They were for the most part purchased new or used at local CD stores. To the best of my knowledge every single one of them skips consistently in at least one section on some of my CD players. This includes the ones that I've bought new and treated well. CD is clearly a shit-poor technology when compared to most of the options available to me, yet it is the only media you can buy/browse at local stores. Pirate!

Update 2011/07/20: Rhapsody (et al) fucking sucks. Pirate!

Sometimes I enjoy reading texts. I don't enjoy carrying around dead trees. The publishing industry for the most part has absolutely refused to issue anything in electronic form. Further, lots of works are still under copyright but not published anywhere. Pirate!

Update 2011/07/20: Now they release books online but they charge even more than for the dead tree editions, and they have stunningly shitty DRM. Pirate!

I used to enjoy renting videos. For a meager fee, you can browse a selection with your friends and then take one home. I used to rent low-quality VHS tapes. They sucked, sometimes dark scenes wouldn't come through, but you could always watch the movie. But most video stores are switching to DVDs. I have not yet rented a DVD that played perfectly on my computer. How many times have you had your friends sitting on your couch eagerly waiting to know the end of the movie while you are hunting for the old isopropyl? To add insult to injury most video stores have shit-poor selections. To go one step further, in many markets Blockbuster has all but eliminated the competition, and Blockbuster is a shit-poor excuse for a customer experience. Pirate!

Update 2011/07/20: Now they release movies online but the movie industry is fighting to raise the prices even more! Pirate!

I like to play a very small number of videogames, almost all of them from the company id Software. After having purchased almost their entire catalog for more than ten years, I've found that their new publisher has required them to put in super-obnoxious copy protection. As a legitimate customer who has paid for the software I have wasted hours of my life battling this stupid copy protection. When I asked John Carmack, he said that he agreed that copy protection was a problem but said convincing the publisher wasn't worth his time. Now paying for the software just to struggle with copy protection isn't worth my time. Pirate!

Before there was a legal definition of intellectual property content exchange was a much more sticky subject. The only way to keep someone from using your content was to not share it with him. Trade secrets, contracts, and primitive copy protection were the main tools of content creators. Copyrights and patents arised out of a need to encourage them to release their content to the people. IP doesn't exist so that companies can make money off of their content -- they were doing that before. It exists to provide an incentive for them to give it to the public.

Imagine it as a social contract. The cornerstone of a contract is exchange. Consider the implicit contract you have with the neighborhood boy who mows your lawn: You will mow my lawn, in exchange I will give you money. Copyright is no different. Content consumers agree to grant producers certain rights of ownership to information. In exchange content producers agree to share their content with everyone for free as what is called a "public domain work" when the term of their copyright expired.

In America the copyright act of 1790 formed the first version of this contract, in which copyright protections lasted only 28 years. Several years later, a powerful media corporation, Disney, was founded based mostly on the success of a single cartoon: Mickey Mouse. When Mickey Mouse's copyright was about to expire, Disney realized that if everyone were free to copy his likeness, they would no longer profit as lucratively off of The Mouse. Since that time Disney has used a process of legal bribery at the highest levels of our government to influence legislators into extending copyright terms indefinitely. Because the constitution blatantly restricts congress from extending copyright protections for a single entity, they have applied these extensions across the board. The result is that there is no legal reason for any work more recent than Mickey Mouse to ever be placed in the public domain.

But what about our social contract? We gave the content producers basic property rights, and in exchange they give us public domain works? How can this happen when public domain works have been effectively eliminated since Mickey Mouse? The contract is now one-sided. It is no longer advantageous to both sides, and as such, we must abandon it. The application of the laws of capitalism to the existence of better alternatives has given us our inexorable answer. Pirate!

But don't get me wrong. The trouble is not that technology has raised new questions that copyright law has been unable to answer. The problem is that powerful lobbyists have completely gutted the essence of copyright law. The irony is that this crazy idea that "information should be free" doesn't originate in some techno counter-culture of the late twentieth century, but rather in the very concept of "public domain" encoded in American law in 1790. So for the time being, just remember what to do.