·  by Sasha Moss

How pirates shaped the internet as we know it

Originally Posted On: R Street

Today is “International Talk like a Pirate Day.” While it’s a lot of fun to act like a pirate, drink rum and catch up on Errol Flynn movies, piracy is also a serious issue with real economic and legal significance. As electronic devices become an increasingly ubiquitous part of our lives, the content we consume has moved from analog to digital. This has made copying – as well as pirating – increasingly easy and prevalent.

Adding fuel to the flames of this rising “pirate generation” has been the content industry’s recalcitrant and often combative attitude toward digital markets. Piracy, and the reactions to it, has had an immense impact on the daily lives of ordinary Americans, shaping their digital experience by determining how they can share, transfer and consume content.

As soon as electronic storage and communication technology was sufficiently developed, digital piracy became accessible. Whether it’s a song, movie, video game or other piece of software, you could suddenly reproduce it without having to steal it off a shelf or obtain any specialized machinery to counterfeit it. Additionally, if you wanted to listen to an mp3 of the latest Britney Spears album on your computer, there weren’t many lawful options. This led to a surge in online piracy and helped foster a culture of online file-sharing.

Out of this period came some ridiculous anti-piracy campaigns, but also major legislation both good and bad (such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act and the Communications Decency Act) as well as legal battles that would set key precedents for how we access the digital world.

The music industry historically has a reputation for being hostile to, or at least slow to embrace, digital markets. Yet there were also some major artists who were early innovators in the space.

Before Spotify or iTunes, there was BowieNet. This music-focused internet service provider launched in July 1998 and gave users 5MB of space to create and share their own websites, content and chat. On BowieNet, according to Ars Technica: “[f]ans could get access to unreleased music, artwork, live chats, first-in-line tickets, backstage access, tickets to private, fan club-only concerts.” David Bowie saw the potential to help his fan base access his content and discuss it in a social way in the early days of the internet, before Facebook or Myspace. He remarked at the time: “If I was 19 again, I’d bypass music and go right to the internet.”

Bowie wasn’t the only early music pioneer of the internet. Prince was also an early unsung hero. In the early 2000s, he created NPG Music Group, later Lotusflow3r. He even won a Webby Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Unlike BowieNet, NPG and later Lotusflow3r provided releases of full albums.

As musicians and users were experimenting with new ways to share content on the internet, the United States was working with other World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) member countries to create the most comprehensive “digital” update to the Copyright Act. In 1998, President Clinton signed into law the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which implemented U.S. WIPO treaty obligations, as well as several other significant titles (including the Vessel Hull Design Protection Act – which pirates of the nautical variety might care about). Of particular importance were the sections providing for “safe harbor” (Sec. 512), which protected service providers from infringing content generated by their users, and “anti-circumvention” (Sec. 1201), which was meant to stop pirates from hacking digital rights management (DRM) and similar restriction technologies.

Indeed, it has not been smooth sailing. The DMCA has subsequently generated great controversy from civil society groups, internet companies and the content industry itself. As Cary Sherman, chairman and CEO of Recording Industry Association of America, stated back in 2015:

Unfortunately, while the system worked when isolated incidents of infringement occurred on largely static web pages—as was the case when the law was passed in 1998—it is largely useless in the current world where illegal links that are taken down reappear instantaneously. The result is a never-ending game that is both costly and increasingly pointless.

While lawmakers were hard at work trying to find ways to quell online piracy, the courts weren’t taking a nap. Indeed, going back to the 1980s, there were important judicial fights that would set the stage for how content would be handled on our electronic devices.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1984 Sony Corp. of America v Universal City Studios Inc. decision coined what is known as “time shifting,” referring to a user’s ability to record a live show using the Betamax to watch it later. The court’s decision set the precedent that a manufacturer would not be held liable for any contributory negligence or potential infringement where they did not have actual knowledge of infringement and their devices were sold for a legitimate, non-infringing purpose. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the majority opinion:

One may search the Copyright Act in vain for any sign that the elected representatives of the millions of people who watch television every day have made it unlawful to copy a program for later viewing at home, or have enacted a flat prohibition against the sale of machines that make such copying possible. It may well be that Congress will take a fresh look at this new technology, just as it so often has examined other innovations in the past. But it is not our job to apply laws that have not yet been written.

But not everyone was so enthusiastic. Jack Valenti, former president of the Motion Picture Association of America said in a congressional hearing two years prior [regarding VHS technology]:

We are going to bleed and bleed and hemorrhage, unless this Congress at least protects one industry that is able to retrieve a surplus balance of trade and whose total future depends on its protection from the savagery and the ravages of this machine.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would take another approach in 2000’s A&M Records v Napster. The court affirmed the district court’s ruling that peer-to-peer services could be held for contributory infringement and vicarious liability. Even though their service merely facilitated the exchange of music as an intermediary, they were on the hook. Judge Marilyn Hall Patel wrote in the district court’s ruling:

…virtually all Napster users engage in the unauthorized downloading or uploading of copyrighted music; as much as eighty-seven percent of the files available on Napster may be copyrighted, and more than seventy percent may be owned or administered by plaintiffs

Napster lodged several defenses, including fair use, but the most important (in lieu of the Sony decision) was the concept of “space-shifting,” referring to the process of a user converting a compact disc recording to mp3 files, then using Napster to transfer the music to a different computer. Patel concluded Sony did not apply, because Napster retained control over their product, unlike Sony’s Betamax, which was manufactured and sold, but not actively monitored.
The courts would continue ruling in a similar manner as other peer-to-peer services found themselves in the courtroom. At times, users would be targeted. And in the 2003 case of In re: Aimster, the pirates’ bluntness for wanting to bring the music industry to its knees did not help the situation

What you have with Aimster is a way to share, copy, listen to, and basically in a nutshell break the law using files from other people’s computers…. I suggest you accept aimster for what it is, an unrestricted music file sharing database – (posted by zhardoum, May 18, 2001)

Naturally with all of the music-sharing services were being shut down, the pirates found a new way to connect, share files and shape the industry. Which brings us to BitTorrent and websites like The Pirate Bay and Swepiracy. Torrenting does not require a central server, does not require direct streaming from one peer to another and the host does not contain any full file contents. All of the content received is from other users.

Sweden brought Pirate Bay to trial for both civil and criminal penalties. Per E. Samuelson, the site’s attorney, lodged the now-famous (and familiar, for U.S. copyright scholars) King Kong defense:

EU directive 2000/31/EC says that he who provides an information service is not responsible for the information that is being transferred. In order to be responsible, the service provider must initiate the transfer. But the admins of The Pirate Bay don’t initiate transfers. It’s the users that do and they are physically identifiable people.

The defense was unsuccessful. Which brings many questions to mind for future cases — how will courts begin to rule with such complex systems of file transfer as fragmented torrents? Targeting users is widely unpopular, especially in the United States, where statutory penalties range from $750 to $300,000 per willful infringing use and $200 to $150,000 for non-willful infringement.

Efforts around the world have continually been made to combat piracy. But maybe it’s time we take a fresh look at the market. As the Copia Institute observed in a recent report, whenever there are new ways to share content legally, users ultimately respond by employing those technologies.

On this International Talk like a Pirate Day, let’s take a moment to remember the pirates and how they have helped shape the internet era. While CD sales and digital downloads may be declining, new streaming services are on the rise (vinyl records are also doing remarkably well). The digital revolution has, indeed, changed how we consume and access our music. It has given us access to (nearly) everything, through services like Spotify and Apple music, at a reasonable price and with unparalleled convenience.

From the consumer’s perspective, you now carry hundreds of hours of music on your phone and listen to it whenever you want – no need for one of those bulky CD binders. The slot where the CD used to go in your car is now an auxiliary cable jack.

From an artist perspective’s, these are new challenges that require adaptation. Particularly in the case of music licensing, our pre-existing laws are unnecessarily complex, cumbersome and antiquated. However, innovative technologies and services are not to blame. Instead, we should seek new and equally innovative ways for artists to be compensated through more direct and transparent payments (such as Ujo).

While our copyright laws are far from perfect, we still have substantial freedom to remix, repurpose and share creative content online in a social context. This is essential to online free expression, digital commerce and the proper functioning of the internet itself. As additional discussions in Congress and in the courts move forward, let’s make sure we keep it that way.


Obtained from the Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/bobhope/vaude.html

Photo by Cherries / Shutterstock.com