Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Essay: Fandom and Piracy (Part 4)

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

The biggest gripe when it comes to piracy--although this probably remains unacknowledged--is that it's become mainstream (and the only thing that's worse than that is for piracy to be legitimized). Take for example the era of cassette tapes and mix tapes. Were record companies hunting individuals who made mix tapes? If you made them accessible however, such as selling pirated music in malls, or making them available for free on radio, then suddenly you have the attention of the rights-holders, and lawsuits were in order.

When it comes to the Internet, all sorts of piracy was happening, but the key factor here is that it was taking place beyond mainstream consciousness. Bulletin boards, chat rooms, and obscure P2P services are the tools of piracy, but there was a certain learning curve the casual user needed to master before they could use them. That's why music labels focused on Napster: it was a relatively easy-to-use service that disseminated music. And the same goes for the various BitTorrent sites. The basic rule of thumb is that if you can access it via a web browser, then you're mainstream enough to warrant the attention. It's also the biggest slap to the face as the rights-holder if your intellectual property is available for free on some Google-able website. (Interestingly enough, this fact can also be used to counter piracy. The reason Apple's iTunes store works is because it's convenient to use if you're familiar with their service.)

The source of such pirated material, however, isn't on websites. As I mentioned before, pirates are organized, and some even develop brand names for themselves: "This pirate comes out with releases quickly." "That pirate produces quality releases." The key here is that the pirate has their own community and thrives within it. Without the said community, the pirate loses motivation to continue what they're doing (in the same sense that real pirates lose out if no one wants to buy their stolen goods). The problem with current piracy counter-measures is that the rights-holders aren't suing the original pirates, merely the middle-men. And unlike authentic criminal organizations, these middle-men aren't under the employ of the original pirates, but fans (misguided as they may be) who think they are doing a service to fellow fans by perpetuating piracy. Eventually, one of these middle-men comes out into the open (and putting up a website or a Torrent host), but for the most part, the original pirates are content living in their enclosed community. The best analogy here is that Internet piracy is like an infinite chain letter, with the scapegoats being the most recent propagator. Does this end the chain letter link? Not really.

Now the question is, where are these safe and private communities? Message boards and bulletin board services (BBS), while sounding archaic by today's Internet lingo, is actually quite prevalent to this very day. What prevents message boards from being mainstream is that they don't look pretty and are far from intuitive. It requires some knowledge of code (even if it's as simple as using opening and closing tags) for example (today's Internet user is more used to user-friendly services that replicate the features of message boards such as Facebook and blogs). It also requires registration (and verification via email). More exclusive message boards even have tiered membership benefits, with casual users not having access to certain forums. The piracy innovation brought about by this decade is the availability of file-sharing services such as Megaupload and Rapidshare. Pirates can simply upload a file to those services and post the link to bulletin boards. While it's not the most convenient of methods, it's relatively simple and easy, and doesn't tax the servers of the said message boards.

Bulletin boards are useful for pirates because it allows for collaboration, even among pirates who don't know each other. This is best seen in the manga scanlation industry. One person uploads a raw (uncleaned and untranslated) scan in one forum. Another person reads that forum and makes the translation. A third person might clean up the original scan. A fourth person combines the efforts of the last two.

Another such community is chat rooms. The barrier to entry here is similar to message boards. You need to be familiar with certain codes and commands (to enter a channel for example, you need to type "/join #name"). In some chat rooms, you also need to have a registered account or an authorized member of the said channel. The third mainstream hindrance is that you usually need a third-party application to access chat rooms.

If the specialty of bulletin boards is that it allows collaboration (the same applies to chat rooms as well), chat rooms on the other hand are the original peer-to-peer distributor of pirated material. Because complex code is allowed, there are scripts that have been developed which facilitate the distribution of media. Bots typically operate in this area and all you have to do is send them a specific command and the pirate's chat avatar sends you a list of pirated material they have (some would even do Ray Kroc proud with their signature mentioning "XX millions served"). Another command snags you the pirated material you requested for. Rinse and repeat.

Because both of these are taking place "underground", there's a plethora more material there than what is typically found on, say, a Torrent site. For example, nothing concrete comes up when you put in SF author Rudy Rucker's name in torrent search engines but in chat channels that specializes in eBooks, his name pops up with (not a lot) some frequency. A rule of thumb is that the more popular you are (i.e. J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or even just a Robert Jordan), the likelier you'll appear in mainstream pirate venues such as BitTorrent. Cult sensations might remain in the sphere of these cloistered areas, while obscure writers remain obscure.

What's interesting to notice is that while there are pirates in various industries, be it anime, manga, eBooks, comics, movies, music, etc., they tend to operate the same way. They use either message boards or chat rooms (or both) to disseminate their material, and each one has similar membership rules. There are variations of course. One might bar the use of the "@search" command in a chat room, while another encourages it. At the heart of it though, a pirate community operates like a fan community, and follows the same guidelines the latter would (except for the pirating part).

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