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.