Intellectual Property

In Defense of Pirates

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hook

Storybook pirates need no defending. What's not to love about Captain Hook?

But copyright pirates are often blamed for all manner of social ills, from the low quality of the music those whippersnappers listen to these days, to Hollywood's troubles at the box office. In the Guardian, pop culture guru Matt Mason makes a plea on their behalf:

When an online copy of Scrabble called Scrabulous appeared on Facebook, it quickly amassed 2.3 million fans who played it every day. It was an amazing user-generated ad campaign, and sales of real Scrabble boards increased. All Hasbro and Mattel (the owners of Scrabble) had to do was swoop in with their cheque books and make it legit; instead they treated Scrabulous as a simple case of piracy and threatened to sue. It may have been smarter to cut a deal rather than anger potential customers. Thousands signed up to the "Save Scrabulous" Facebook group. One fan threatened a hunger strike. Hasbro and Mattel are still talking tough, but if the backlash continues they may be forced to eat their words.

Managing directors take note! Don't let your legal department make a decision about pirates without talking to marketing first, because pirates can sometimes refresh the parts other ad strategies cannot reach.

The same piece also has a story about how remixers have saved us from "rubbish trainers" (that's "crappy sneakers" to Americans) by tarting up Nike's classic Air Force 1 on their own dime, and under their own brands.

Check out my review of Matt Mason's book, The Pirate's Dilemma, in the May issue.

NEXT: 30 Years Ago in Reason

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  1. The increase in piracy also lowers global temperatures.

  2. Is there anything to be said here about how a private business can be as out of touch with people as a government? And that a business isn’t remotely hesitant to support regulation that helps it?

  3. I didn’t RTFA, but isn’t the problem that if Mattel lets Scrabulous live online, they may face board-and-tile competition for Scrabble in the future because they didn’t “defend” their copyright?

  4. if the backlash continues they may be forced to eat their words.

    Which, if those words are composed of wooden tiles, could get really painful.

    I didn’t RTFA, but isn’t the problem that if Mattel lets Scrabulous live online, they may face board-and-tile competition for Scrabble in the future because they didn’t “defend” their copyright?

    All they have to do to defend their copyright is demand that Scrabulous get a license from them. To be safe, they should probably charge $1.00, and require a link to their on-line retail site.

  5. Speaking of remixers, a friend is into the rave scene, and tells me that not only do the record companies mostly not care about DJ Joe Shmoe remixing the latest hit, they will often offer to buy the rights to the stolen (and enhanced) product to sell through normal channels.

  6. Arrrgh!

  7. isn’t the problem that if Mattel lets Scrabulous live online, they may face board-and-tile competition for Scrabble in the future because they didn’t “defend” their copyright?

    Copyright doesn’t work that way; you’re thinking of trademarks. And even if Scrabulous is inappropriately borrowing Mattel’s marks, the company doesn’t have to respond with a suit; it could follow Mason’s and R.C. Dean’s advice and cut a licensing deal.

  8. Don’t let your legal department make a decision about pirates without talking to marketing first

    I’d bet “QUIZ” on a triple word score that it was marketing that tipped legal to Scrabulous in the first place. The proper route would be to fire the marketing department and replace them with the makers of Scrabulous.

  9. It was an amazing user-generated ad campaign, and sales of real Scrabble boards increased.

    There is a large leap between “companies are sometimes stupid to enforce intellectual property protections” and “companies should not have intellectual property protections.”

  10. Who cares about piracy? On one camp you have the cultureless crowd who want to download an identity. On the other other camp you have the greedy producers who want to maxmimize profit. I’m not sure I like either side.

  11. “The increase in piracy also lowers global temperatures.”

    Ahh, the wisdom of the Flying Spaghetti Monster reaches far and wide. My you be touched by his noodly appendage.

    RAhmen

  12. Is the fact that the “pirated” image for this story is not loading indicative of KMW’s brilliant gift for satire or her abominable web skills?

  13. Mr. Musical Note gets it.

    I’m kinda surprised as to why this article is appearing on reason. Intellectual property, like all property, is the result of large amounts of hard-work, time, and effort, and deserves the full protection of the law, like all property does.

    That said, most companies will find pros and cons to people pirating their stuff, and as pointed out by the article, piracy can be really useful.

    Just like Proctor and Gamble benefits by offering free samples of their latest cleaning product, music labels can benefit (to a point) by letting their songs be pirated. It’s up to the property owner to decide how the property is to be used.

  14. Brandon,

    There is a serious debate about whether IP is property at all. I personally think it is not property in a natural rights sense but still a useful concept.

  15. Copyright doesn’t work that way; you’re thinking of trademarks. And even if Scrabulous is inappropriately borrowing Mattel’s marks, the company doesn’t have to respond with a suit; it could follow Mason’s and R.C. Dean’s advice and cut a licensing deal.

    Indeed it could, but if it determines (correctly or not — who’s to say, really?) that its best economic interests lie in not cutting such a deal it should be able to enjoy the benefit of its bargain in the current copyright laws.

    That’s not to say those laws should not be changed. I’d probably be in favor of all sorts of IP reforms. One of the underlying problems, however, is whether the law is designed primarily to promote private property rights or to promote economic growth. Sure, it would be nice to believe it could accomplish both interests without compromising either, but it certainly isn’t clear that such is possible. Absent such an ideal case, shouldn’t most libertarians (drink!) argue that private property rights take precedence?

    Oh, and the answer to “What’s not to love about Captain Hook”? Aggressive foreplay.

  16. Actually, isn’t this really an interesting case study on the “invisible hand” in the marketplace?

    Action A: Online scrabble board is built outside of the immediate reach of company owning said intellectual property.

    Result B: Increase sales and profits for said company.

    Action C: Said company seems to act in a way that puts profits secondary to something else.

    Question D: Why would company oppose increase profits? It can’t be property rights trump profits, clearly said company still owns said rights and could excercise them now. So, it isn’t property rights that they are defending?

    Question E: What then are they defending?

    Proposition F: There problem may have been similar to a feudal lords problem prior to the industrial revolution, and nothing at all to do with the market place. I propose that their actions suggest that they are actually against the “free market” even if it improves their own bottom line in favor of a different flavor entirely.

  17. Too complicated, Lawrence. Their legal department is charged with enforcing a policy that says anyone ripping off one of their games should be sued into oblivion.

    I doubt anyone at Hasbro/Mattel has put as much thought into it as you have.

  18. Storybook pirates need no defending. What’s not to love about Captain Hook?

    Hmm… missing hand (arm?), peg leg… sounds like he might be that mythical 3/5 of a person the original Constitution talked about 🙂

  19. There is a large leap between “companies are sometimes stupid to enforce intellectual property protections” and “companies should not have intellectual property protections.”

    Yeah! Get the Hell out of the way of my state sanctioned monopoly profits! Monopoly good. Competition bad.

  20. Yeah! Get the Hell out of the way of my state sanctioned monopoly profits! Monopoly good. Competition bad.

    Oh? And what makes you think you’re entitled to that state-sanction, monolopoly control of that land you own?

  21. I’m kinda surprised as to why this article is appearing on reason. Intellectual property, like all property, is the result of large amounts of hard-work, time, and effort, and deserves the full protection of the law, like all property does.

    And just like all other types of property, the owners should either defend their rights themselves, or accept the restrictions of others who help defend it for them.

  22. One fan threatened a hunger strike.

    Yea, that’ll teach ’em!

  23. So in other words, Mr. Verdon, “Single Ownership Bad! Common Property Good!”

    Kind of perverse that way, ain’t it?

  24. Hasbro being stupid in how they handled the situation isn’t so much the issue here. It’s whether or not you think they should have the right to be stupid about it.

    I happen to think so, and that this sort of right will actually help competition in the long run because, if Hasbro and other corporations continually make bad choices, they can be more effectively attacked by insurgent start-ups.
    I don’t think it’s our or anyone else’s right to tell them that they shouldn’t be allowed to make these mistakes, and that we know what’s better for them and their property.

  25. A look at the impact of piracy on music sales…

    http://www.katallaxi.se/grejer/blackburn/blackburn_fs.pdf

    This is a bit out of date, but finds an aggregate negative effect, despite positive effects for lesser known artists.

    However, it also shows a justification for aggressive prosecution by the industry of piracy…

  26. Funny that as I’m writing this, I’m listening to “dub” music on Party FM, the Caribbean Entertainment Radio Station (pirate) here in the Bronx on 91.3 . Only trouble is they interfere a bit with WFMU on 91.1 .

    Yes, the IP lawyers do some really stupid things for their businesses. Another example is the Detroit hotel that annually hosted a Monopoly tournament. Then Parker Bros. sent them a cease & desist letter forbidding them to advertise it as such. So now their sign advertises the “Monotony” tourney.

    WTF are those lawyers thinking? How could the free advertising possibly hurt the biz? Considering that they had to buy Monopoly sets to play the tournament, it would seem to be a matter of exhaustion; what more could Parker Bros. expect to get from the public use of their product? You’d think Parker would pay them for the advertising.

  27. sales of real Scrabble boards increased

    I don’t see any proof that said increase is in any way related to Facebook.

    Plus, there’s a world of difference between cloning a game and using bits and pieces of earlier artistry to fashion a new piece of art.

  28. “Oh? And what makes you think you’re entitled to that state-sanction, monopoly control of that land you own?”

    The barbwire fence around it. It requires no government intervention to keep you off of my property.

  29. From http://www.templetons.com/brad/copymyths.html

    5) “If you don’t defend your copyright you lose it.”

    False. Copyright is effectively never lost these days, unless explicitly given away.

  30. Trademarks on the other hand are definitely “defend it or lose it”.

  31. The barbwire fence around it. It requires no government intervention to keep you off of my property.

    Strictly speaking, violations of copyright are already illegal use of your property. That is, someone has already trespassed on what’s yours, and you are now using the government to recompense your loss.

    It’s *impossible* to keep someone from stealing your copyright(just like, for the average person, it’s nigh-on *impossible* to keep someone off of your property…if they want in, they’ll get in); it is NOT impossible to punish them for it.

  32. Also, Lamar, I’d like to mention this: how do you prove that’s your property? For all I know, you’re a squatter with some fake/arbitrary piece of paper that says you’re the owner.

  33. Ayn_Randian,

    The big difference between real property and intellectual property, vis a vis government creation of rights, is that real property is scarce by its very nature, which creates value. By contrast, the government must create the value for intellectual property by creating an artificial scarcity.

    See the difference?

  34. Anyhow, I’m sure you’ll come up with some academic brilliance government-created scarcity doesn’t really mean that IP is a government granted monopoly.

  35. Anyhow, I’m sure you’ll come up with some academic brilliance about how government-created scarcity doesn’t really mean that IP is a government granted monopoly.

  36. What would be really good would be if someone here (or elsewhere in the Libertarian intellectual community) did some serious thinking about the differences between property rights in real objects and property rights in objects that exist primarily as bits and bytes. It’s clear that they should not be treated as exactly the same (i.e. the RIAA is just plain wrong when they say downloading songs is the same as shoplifting) but on the other hand, creators deserve some kind of recompense.
    And on the third hand, because real property is unique (because it’s made of atoms) it must have a different kind of value (vis ? vis scarcity) from intellectual property, which, because it is made of bits can be infinitely cloned for virtually no cost. In short, if I have a copy of a book you don’t have that copy, but if I have a music file you can also have one without taking it from me.
    We need a new theory of property or it’s going to get mean and silly at the same time. Or even meaner and even sillier than it is already.

  37. I hope the entertainment industry idiots are, and Hollywood and the Television studios collapse. Then real art will return. Although dumbass suits are rarely right. A pissed off modernist can dream though, can’t he? Yes he can…

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