Pirate Capitalism

Remix culture goes corporate


The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism, by Matt Mason, New York: Free Press, 279 pages, $25

In a well-publicized speech two years ago, Disney co-chair Anne Sweeney said, "We understand now that piracy is a business model.… Pirates compete the same way we do —through quality, price, and availability."

Sweeney wasn't thinking about Jack Sparrow, the fictional hero of Disney's cash cow Pirates of the Caribbean. She meant the consumers and capitalists who pull music, words, and video out of the culture and remix, recast, and resell them.

It used to be easy to tell the pirates from the creators. Record labels sold CDs; Napster distributed music for free. Studios made movies; bootleggers taped opening nights in theaters and sold DVDs on the street the next morning. But postmodern piracy is more than mere bootlegging. In its best manifestation, it is the creation of brand new products cobbled together from the sights and sounds of contemporary life—including those sights and sounds disseminated by billion-dollar entertainment corporations.

In order to keep up with the pirates, more and more media companies have started to copy and co-opt their tactics. They've done this so well and so thoroughly that it's getting hard to tell where piracy ends and good marketing begins. These increasingly blurry lines are making the entertainment industry nervous and conflicted. In The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism, Matt Mason of Vice magazine tells the stories of early mix-tape mavens, turf-protecting graffiti artists, and retro sneaker designers while analyzing the ways that big companies compete with, fight off, and (increasingly) embrace culture pirates.

Mason concentrates on edgier industries, but we need look no further than Disney's multi-billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise for a prime example of a decades-long saga of a major corporation first plagiarizing itself and then encouraging others to do the same.

It began in the late 1950s, when someone at Disneyland dreamed up a wax museum of history's great pirates, sort of a seafaring Madame Tussaud's. After the 1964 New York World's Fair, the herky-jerky robot motions and pre-recorded audio of "animatronics" became all the rage. Disneyland's wax-pirate exhibit slowly evolved into a creepy, scary, kitschy wonder: a shadowy boat ride through larger-than-life animated pirates going about their dirty business.

After a few decades of mooring itself into the subconscious minds of American children—who among us didn't duck when the fake cannonballs whistled by?—the Pirates of the Caribbean resurfaced in the early 1990s as a screenplay pitch from Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, whose previous projects included Aladdin and Shrek, paradigmatic specimens of the self-aware, self-referential, pop-literate era of animated features.

In 2003, Disney finally turned the adaptation of the theme-park ride into celluloid. The rest is history: Swaggery drunk Johnny Depp (in a character openly lifted from Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards) spawned a trilogy of films, the second of which made an astonishing $1,066,179,725 in worldwide box office. Halloween costumes abounded, some Disney-issued and some not. Some were simply labeled "pirate" but looked a lot like Sparrow/Richards.

At least eight video games inspired by the film have appeared, with varying degrees of official sanction. A mobile phone game released by Disney's Internet unit received lackluster reviews while a popular, unauthorized Xbox game borrowed the title, The Black Pearl, and little else. But instead of suing the peglegs off their unauthorized competitors, Disney simply pulled alongside and joined the melee with its own (free) Pirates of the Caribbean online role-playing game, fighting it out on the pirates' own terms. Disney has stopped seeing at least some of the world's pirates and remixers as thieves, and started seeing them as opportunities for a vast, multi-faceted marketing campaign.

Using the customizable characters from the role-playing game, fans were soon creating original YouTube videos—digital clips of pirates skewering British officers on their cutlasses, for example—from within the world of Pirates of the Caribbean Online. Some of the best were made by the 10,000 fans given passwords for the beta test of the online game at a pre-screening of the third movie, making them officially sanctioned pirate remixers (many of whom take their role literally, showing up to the screening in eye patches and tricorns).

Lots of these fan-fiction films have developed narratives of their own. They are part of a growing movement of machinima, where fans use video game environments to create their own animated movies, many of them borrowing characters or settings from Hollywood blockbusters. Meanwhile, the unauthorized Xbox game has in turn become the basis for 14 (and counting) user-modified versions at the PiratesAhoy.com online community.

In 2006, completing the great circle of recycling, Disneyland altered the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride to include an animatronic Johnny Depp.

In an effort to explain this mash-up landscape, Mason turns, with mixed success, to the last days of disco, to the early days of tagging New York subway cars, and to economic game theory. The most apt parallel, though, is to an industry known for its fickleness. Video and music companies are slowly realizing something that the world of fashion—with its markedly more relaxed attitude toward intellectual property—has always known. In the words of Coco Chanel, who long ruled the fashion world with an iron fist and a quilted handbag, "a fashion that does not reach the streets is not a fashion."

In a 2006 Virginia Law Review article, "The Piracy Paradox," Kal Raustiala and Chris Springman made the case that "induced obsolescence" is the fashion industry's healthy way of shrugging off the impact of copying while still remaining relevant. Logos can be protected —via trademark law, not copyright—but there's nothing illegal about selling a purple head-scarf that looks a lot like the purple headscarf in Ralph Lauren's last collection. Ralph simply announces that eyepatches are all the rage now and purple headscarves are so last season. This keeps fashion fresh and the industry strong, all with very weak intellectual property protection. As Coco said, "Fashion is made to become unfashionable."

This isn't to say that all designers sit idly by while $30 versions of $5,000 purses show up on the street. The Paris-based Hermès in particular has been aggressive about protecting its logos and certain additional trademarkable design elements. Still, the relationship between Chinese knock-offs and couture may be mutually beneficial in the end.

"We don't like the model but we realize it's competitive enough to make it a major competitor going forward," Disney's Sweeney said in her speech. Mason puts it another way, using awfully similar language: "Pirates have taken over the good ship capitalism, but they're not here to sink it. Instead, they will plug the holes, keep it afloat, and propel it forward."

Katherine Mangu-Ward
is an associate editor of Reason.

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  1. I read this book in an evening. Don’t waste your time. It presupposes increasing prosperity over the next few years and rehashes a bunch of things you already know about pop culture.

    The Long Tail covers the same basic ground and is superior.

  2. Excellent article! Way to go KMW!

  3. Software copying (and by software, I mean anything that can be digitized, so that included video games, music, movies, TV shows, even books) proves that, with the right technology, communism can work.

    Hear me out.

    What is open-source software except “common ownership of the means of production”? It’s free and is made by people basically for free. Pirated movies and music is similar, in a way. It’s really hard to charge for something that is available for free. In terms of digital content, a large amount of it is now basically free, because the cost to make more is nil, and the data can be freely copied. So, if the cost to make more content is nothing, the basic inefficiencies in a communistic system are irrelavent.

    Now, this doesn’t happen to non-digital real world things (cars, sofas, Pepsi)-yet. But the moment somebody invents a Star Trek-like replicator, Ford is going to have to starting suing people who replicate Mustangs. After a replicator is invented (assuming such is possible), the capitalistic economy as we know it will soon collapse. Of course, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

  4. Aye, good arrrrrticle, that

  5. Now, this doesn’t happen to non-digital real world things (cars, sofas, Pepsi)-yet.

    Arrrrrr, why does me ale tastes like… ones and zeros!?

  6. How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism

    Lame subtitle. Must have been added by a committee. Capitalism by its very nature is “reinvented” every second by all who participate in it, young and old.

  7. Arrrrrr, why does me ale tastes like… ones and zeros!?


  8. Who gives a fuck about anything when Grand Theft Auto IV is fucking only fucking 20 fucking days a-fucking-way from fucking being fucking released?

  9. What is open-source software except “common ownership of the means of production”?

    Well, first thing it is is NOT THAT. Open-source software (at least the copyright) is owned by the creators of the software. The license allows you to use it in more ways ways than a closed source license, but if you violate the license, you lose your right to use it and/or can be sued. It is no different than closed source except for allowing the user to do more with it.

  10. Arrrr

    Say, matey, does they make a Grand Theft Booty??

    Sargasso Sea Edition?

  11. Before it comes up, Im going to rant, sort of a prerant.


    That is all.

  12. Grand Theft Auto IV:
    Why Youth Culture Sucks So Much

    In bookstores everywhere April 19.

  13. No shit about that, ed.
    Can’t wait for the howls coming from both the left and the right.
    Meanwhile, I’ll be fucking a hooker, blasting her head off and taking her money while looking for cops to make into burger when I mow over their fat asses.
    Ooh, it’s gonna be sweetness.

  14. After a replicator is invented (assuming such is possible), the capitalistic economy as we know it will soon collapse.

    No it won’t. We all know there were credits in Star Trek. Credits! Oh, and Quatloos too.

  15. I’m going to take this book, make a few personal modifications, and then print off the whole thing and sell it for a substantially lower cost.

  16. Reinmoose is gonna get all youth culture on that book’s ass.

  17. My daughter, who just turned 12, enjoys ripping her favorite dvds to the computer and then chopping them up, editing them and adding her favorite mp3s to make her own videos. She then uploads them to YouTube to share with other kids.

    There are thousands of kids doing this. They aren’t making any money off it, of course, but they are abusing the hell out of some copyrights. Where is the harm?

  18. No it won’t. We all know there were credits in Star Trek. Credits! Oh, and Quatloos too.

    Only on DS9, I believe, and don’t forget your “gold-pressed Latinum”. God, I hate that show.

  19. with the right technology, communism can work.

    Well, no.

    If you define “communism” to mean “we don’t have to pay for stuff,” then maybe. But if you use the communist definition of “no private property, the people own everything” then this isn’t communism. Everyone will have his or her own copy of Pirates, and use it as they want. The copies will simply be much less expensive. Under capitalism, this is not a new phenomenon. For instance, everyone used to have a basket or shopping bag they gathered groceries in. Then paper, and later plastic bags became so cheap to mass produce stores could provide them cheaply enough (the consumer cost included in overhead) that they became disposable.

    So, if the cost to make more content is nothing, the basic inefficiencies in a communistic system are irrelevant.

    Oh, those communists. The basic inefficiency in the real-world “communistic” systems had nothing to do with cost of production. It was always the cost of central government control.

    After a replicator is invented (assuming such is possible), the capitalistic economy as we know it will soon collapse.

    Perhaps. There is an SF short story written back when (can’t remember title or author right now) where the cunning aliens (long before Star Trek) give Earth a replicator, hoping to destroy the economy and make it easy to take over. The capitalist hero does a quick WTF, and decides they’ll simply have to stop mass-producing items. In the future, economic rewards will flow to those who provide unique products, not those who go basic.

    In a way, this is already happening. The typical product cycle is, 1. invent new technology, say a cell phone, for wealthy people. 2. Mass produce it cheaply enough to encourage everyone to adopt one. 3. Get them cheap enough to provide “free” with a service contract. 4. Then specialize. Once the market is saturated in basic cell phones, make one that will text, or take photos, or is purple. Then one that will do all three. 5. Then start building them into other products. (OnStar) And so forth.

    Absent government interference, capitalism always finds a way.

  20. Digital information is different from material goods. It can be reproduced exactly for infinitesimal cost. This means that Free Software is not like a village commons, as it is impossible to overgraze Free Software. This isn’t communism in the least, because those of us who release their software for free do so voluntarily. It’s no more communist than a potluck.

    For a libertarian leaning view on Free Software and copyrights, see: “Philosophies of Free Software and Intellectual Property“.

  21. Arrrr

    Say, matey, does they make a Grand Theft Booty??

    Sargasso Sea Edition?

    There’s Sid Meyers Pirates! but you might find it a little tame by comparison…

  22. That fuckin’ fucker is fuckin’ fucked!

  23. Hey This book looks pretty great. Does anyone have a torrent for it?

  24. BoingBoing linked to a talk given by the author of this the other day at some conference or other. I’m far too lazy to go get a link for you fucks.

    (And yes, quatloos were in the original series. Remember Kirk & Spock fighting with those stick-things?)

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