The Pirate Preservationists

When keeping cultural archives safe means stepping outside the law


Long ago, when telephones were attached to walls and Sam Goody clerks roamed the earth, I stumbled onto a website whose proprietor possessed some of the sessions that Bob Dylan recorded with Johnny Cash back in 1969. One of the songs had gotten an official release, but the rest had been left in the vault, for most fans little more than an enticing legend.

It was 1996. In those days, acquiring illicit music on the internet was a low-tech, largely analog process. I sent the man an email, he agreed to share the recordings with me, I mailed him a blank cassette, and two months later the tape came back. It now contained one great performance—a cover of Carl Perkins' "Matchbox," with Perkins himself on guitar—and several endearingly sloppy ones.

The music's journey did not end there. I belonged to an email list for fans of the Kinks, and someone on it had promised to ship me some rare material by the band. In exchange for those tapes, I sent him copies of several items from my own stash of music, including the freshly acquired Dylan/Cash bootleg. Revisiting our 27-year-old correspondence, I see that at one point he told me that he could dub videotapes more quickly than audiotapes because he could copy the videos at his job.

Looking back from today, this process may sound absurdly inefficient. But it was much more efficient than the music-swapping subcultures that preceded it. With the internet, you could enter a few keywords into a search engine and find someone offering a recording that you knew only as a rumor. Or you could wander into a digital crowd of music nerds—not just the two or three you might happen to know in your day-to-day life—and discover what unknown wonders they had to share. The ethos was friendly and, for the most part, noncommercial. (When another member of the Kinks list offered me a recording that had been released in the U.K. but not the United States, I mailed her a blank tape and some cash to cover her shipping costs. She returned the money, telling me she didn't feel right about taking it.) The network was sprawling yet intimate, flourishing somewhere in the zone between the online and the offline.

Over time, the network moved deeper into cyberspace. People started collecting MP3s along with their tapes and vinyl. Napster came along, and other peer-to-peer networks followed; the music available became more copious, and the people providing it became more anonymous. (Fans were also more likely to download songs they could easily buy at the store, as opposed to rarities and ephemera.) Soon we had YouTube too, and it gradually evolved into an enormous repository for the world's audio/video odds and ends. The Internet Archive vastly expanded the kinds of material it collected, until it overflowed not just with replicas of defunct websites but with concert tapes, 78 rpm records, radio serials, video games, magazines, movies, and more. The official distributors of Content™ figured out how to make the internet work for them too: We got Spotify and Netflix and all the other streaming services that beam sounds and moving pictures to us today. The culture was digitized.

Then another mood started to emerge—part practical, part paranoid, part nostalgic. The streaming boom ended, or at least it started to recede; many companies started cutting back on their movie and TV catalogs, having calculated that the money they'd gain by offering as big a selection as possible was now smaller than the money they'd save by not paying residuals or licensing fees. (Sometimes there was the prospect of a big tax write-off too.) Even if you thought you'd bought something, you might lose access to it: A year after Sony's PlayStation stopped selling movies, it informed customers in two countries that they "will no longer be able to view your previously purchased Studio Canal content and it will be removed from your video library." The digital world seems vast, but how long will it last?

"Your local bookseller cannot creep into your home in the middle of the night and reclaim the contents of your bookshelf," the legal scholars Aaron Perzanowski and Jason Schultz observe in their 2016 book The End of Ownership. "But Amazon exercises a very different kind of practical power over your digital library. Your Kindle runs software written by Amazon, and it features a persistent network connection. That means Amazon can send it instructions—to delete a book or even replace it with a new version—without any intervention from you." The potential for mischief was clear as early as 2009, when someone started selling bootleg Kindle editions of George Orwell's 1984 and Amazon reacted by dispatching even some purchased copies to the memory hole.

The fearful mood intensifies whenever politics enters the picture. When books by Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, and other long-dead authors were reedited to reflect what are said to be "contemporary sensitivities," many e-books were automatically updated even for readers who had bought them long before. During the George Floyd protests of 2020, several streaming services, unable to stop the abusive policing that set off the unrest, decided instead to edit or eliminate TV episodes where characters appeared in blackface. (This wasn't an anti-racist gesture so much as a cargo-cult copy of an anti-racist gesture—an elaborate imitation built without figuring out the functions of the component parts—and so it mostly affected shows that had presented blackface with obvious disapproval.) Several songs with words that might offend listeners have gone missing from Spotify or (as with Lizzo's "Grrrls," which originally included the term spaz) were replaced with new versions.

Every time news breaks of one of these deletions, a refrain echoes online: Buy physical media! The internet is too impermanent, the argument goes: The real cultural cornucopia was in the outside world.

As is often the case with nostalgia, this leaves out a lot. We still have access to far more media than we did in the days before the mass internet. Yes, this includes that politically controversial material: It takes less than a minute to dig up the unredacted version of "Grrrls" on YouTube (just search for lizzo grrrls spaz), and it's not hard to find material that was withdrawn from circulation long before the internet era. (I'm told the '90s were a less politically correct time than today, but back then you needed to track down a bootleg DVD or videotape if you were curious about Song of the South. Now it's posted on the Internet Archive.) It's too easy to take the internet's riches for granted and to forget how much was inaccessible just a few decades ago.

But while we shouldn't want to return to those pre-web days, there's something to be said for that online-offline hybrid space where my old tape-trading network dwelled—if not as a world to recreate, then as a way to think about cultural preservation. And there's something to be said for the bootleggers and pirates. Whether or not they mean to do it, they're salvaging pieces of our heritage.

We Are the Contraband Preservation Society

In the wake of WarnerMedia's merger with Discovery last year, one of the conglomerate's arms—the streaming service then known as HBO Max—canceled a bunch of shows. I don't merely mean that the company stopped making new episodes: The old episodes disappeared from the website too. Some of the missing programs popped up on other video-on-demand sites, but others, from the science fiction satire Made for Love to the family sitcom Gordita Chronicles, seemed to exit the internet entirely.

When this news broke, that familiar call went out on social media: Buy physical media! But these days shows are less likely to be sold as physical objects. Even if you still have a DVD player, they're inaccessible.

Unless you start poking around those file-sharing networks. At press time, both seasons of Made for Love are available in full on The Pirate Bay. When Gordita Chronicles disappeared, its showrunner complained to the public radio show Marketplace that it was now available only in her private collection and "on American Airlines or JetBlue flights to Miami or New York." But if you know where to look—and if you enter the words "Gordita Chronicles" in any BitTorrent client, it will tell you exactly where to look—you can still see every episode. If you want, you can even burn one to a disc and have that elusive physical copy.

That is cold comfort for any actors or writers still hoping to make money from the canceled shows. As a profit-generating enterprise, they are either dead or, at best, in suspended animation. But they're still there. When HBO pruned its library, the pirates became accidental preservationists.

This wasn't the first time that happened, and it will not be the last. Cultural artifacts have long been preserved by people acting either outside the law entirely or in a legal gray zone:

• F.W. Murnau's 1922 film Nosferatu is a critically acclaimed horror classic. It is also an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. After Stoker's widow sued to stop it from being distributed, the German courts ordered that every print of the picture be destroyed. It survived only because a collector illegally kept a copy, which eventually made its way to the archives of the Cinémathèque Française.

• Both CBS and NBC initially prohibited their radio affiliates from airing prerecorded news reports. This posed problems for the West Coast, which was three hours behind the networks' New York studios, making it difficult to air important broadcasts while its listeners were actually awake. So KIRO, a CBS affiliate in Seattle, started making acetate-disc recordings on the down-low.

That broke the rules, but it's the only reason listeners today can hear CBS' on-the-scene coverage of the D-Day invasion. "That audio history of World War II really brings that war home, in some ways even more than Vietnam," says Feliks Banel, KIRO's resident historian. "The pictures are in your head."

• In 1968, a Nashville insurance salesman named Paul Simpson learned that most network news broadcasts were not retained for more than two weeks. This offended him in general terms—"he believed," the media historian Lucas Hilderbrand wrote in his 2009 book Inherent Vice, "that television news should be available to researchers just as old newspapers are available on microfilm at libraries." It also concerned him as a conservative, because he thought it eliminated evidence of liberal media bias.

So he started recording each network's nightly newscast, first as a short-term experiment and then on a more permanent basis. The Vanderbilt Television News Archive, which he co-founded, made the recordings available to historians, journalists, and others. CBS responded by suing for copyright infringement, demanding that the archive turn over the tapes to be destroyed. The court battle had not yet concluded when Congress settled the matter by passing a law permitting such projects.

• Until 1978, the BBC would habitually delete programs from its TV library, just to save storage space. Even shows as popular as The Avengers, Doctor Who, and Till Death Us Do Part (the model for the American sitcom All in the Family) have gaps in their histories—episodes that as far as we know simply don't exist anymore. But from time to time, an illicitly acquired copy of a lost program will resurface. One Doctor Who kinescope from the '60s turned up two decades later, the BBC reports, when someone bought it "from an elderly dealer at a car-boot sale."

By the time that ancient installment of Doctor Who showed up in 1983, a new era was beginning. Home video recorders were becoming more common, and the number of viewers capable of having their own personal copy of a TV broadcast skyrocketed. It was the beginning of the revolution that would eventually allow Made for Love to survive the HBO purge.

There was a time, after all, when almost every television series disappeared when it was canceled, at least as far as the average viewer was concerned. Even the shows that kept airing in syndicated reruns appeared according to the programmer's whims, not the audience's. With the VCR, a household could build a private TV archive and watch it whenever they wanted.

Many people, of course, would record a show to view just once and then tape over it: their own personal reenactment of the BBC's old retention policy. But not everyone did, and not everyone kept their video libraries to themselves. If you were an American fan of a British or Japanese TV show in the 1980s or 1990s, it could take a very long time for new episodes of the program to be broadcast in the States, if they ever made it here at all. But if you knew someone overseas who might tape them and mail them to you, you could gather a bunch of fellow fans, watch the episodes together, and create copies to circulate further. It was a lot like the music-trading scene that I plugged myself into in the '90s. And as it became easier to transmit video on the internet, this network, like the music network, moved deeper online.

Alongside these informal networks, formal (or at least semiformal) online libraries appeared as well. In her 2016 book Rogue Archives, Abigail De Kosnik of the Berkeley Center for New Media observed that such sites were pioneered by "amateurs, fans, hackers, pirates, and volunteers" who "never underwent training in library and information sciences…but designated themselves 'archivists' anyway, built freely accessible online archives, and began uploading." Their projects range from Project Gutenberg, which has been digitizing books since 1971, to the Archive of Our Own, a vast compendium of fan fiction and fan art. Inevitably, some of these websites enter legally dicey territories.

Even when an archive's feet are firmly planted on the safe side of the law, it may owe something to a gray or black market. Take the Video Game History Foundation, a nonprofit that preserves games and related artifacts. "We very, very, very much acknowledge piracy here at the Video Game History Foundation as a historically vital form of preservation, because there have often been no other methods to do so," the group's co-director, Kelsey Lewin, said on the Video Game History Hour podcast in April. She wishes there were more options: Later in the same show, she added that "redundancy is vital to preservation….We should not have to expect or require piracy as the only solution." But sometimes that's all there is.

Death Is Not the End

One unexpected effect of this migration to the internet was to blur the boundary between a blog and a music label.

Countless companies specialize in finding forgotten music, often released by regional or local labels that went out of business long ago, and repackaging it for modern listeners. Countless crate-diggers do essentially the same thing, but they post their finds on blogs, on YouTube channels, in Internet Archive collections, or as SoundCloud mixes. As streaming gradually displaced CDs, some reissue labels started posting playlists as well as publishing physical releases. This is not just true in the sense that, say, the Chicago-based Numero Group posts albums on Spotify. The same record label posts playlists on Spotify, the way any user can, which gives it a legal way to include songs it doesn't have the right to reissue itself.

At that point, the chief difference is that the labels usually make an effort to stay within the law while the bloggers and YouTubers are more likely simply to field the copyright takedown notices as they come. And even here there is a gray area.

Luke Owen has been in the music business for about a decade and a half, working mostly on the distribution side. In 2014 he founded Death Is Not The End, a small London label named for an Ethel Profit gospel song. While it releases some new music, the bulk of the company's catalog consists of obscure recordings that have entered the public domain, from Brazilian country music to Jamaican doo-wop to a field recording of a Native American psilocybin ceremony. Owen is also a DJ, and when a friend invited him to make a mix for a series called Blowing Up The Workshop, he made a tribute to the transmissions he had heard growing up in Bristol during the U.K.'s second great pirate radio boom. Owen's entry interspersed tapes of unlicensed broadcasts from the '80s and '90s with fuzz and static meant to simulate the experience of tuning an FM dial.

After a while, Owen started offering a tape of the mix on his label's Bandcamp page, under the title Bristol Pirates. As far as he was concerned, it belonged on the same shelf as the older music he releases. "Folk music isn't just what the Lomaxes recorded," he says, alluding to a family that traveled across 20th-century America collecting songs. "It is a vast cultural web that extends across many different boundaries. When it comes to specifically the pirate radio stuff, I believe them to be essentially field recordings of just as much cultural importance as old-timey folk, blues, and gospel." (That connection is reflected by his label's logo: While the company's name comes from that gospel song, the logo pays tribute to yet another Death Is Not the End, this one a 1992 album by the rave act Shut Up and Dance.)

Since then, Death Is Not The End has released multiple collections of samizdat tapes from raves and house parties, plus several albums of ads that aired on pirate stations. These are arguably even closer in spirit to field recordings, especially the two compilations of MCs doing a "pause for the cause"—that is, a promotion for a sponsor. But those ads, and indeed all these pirate-radio and rave releases, include fragments of copyrighted pop music, which means Owen and his label are at least potentially open to intellectual property suits.

This is, in a sense, an inversion of those illegal torrents of Gordita Chronicles: While those uploaders were engaged in piracy and inadvertently became preservationists in the process, Owen is engaged in preservation and in the process may have veered into what the law would call piracy. But he has arrived at the same intersection, even if he's arriving from the opposite direction. It's not so different from what a fan who loads vintage records onto YouTube is doing, but it's available not just as a stream but as a vinyl record or a cassette: physical formats that you can hold in your hand, that can't be zapped from afar by an overzealous copyright lawyer.

Or by anyone else. YouTube takes down content for all sorts of reasons. While it has plenty of storage space, people upload more than 270,000 hours of content to it each day; it is hardly inconceivable that Google, its parent company, will someday start its own reenactment of the BBC wiping the tapes. "Google is a Library the same way a Supermarket is a Food Museum," Jason Scott of the Internet Archive tweeted in 2021. "It should be treated as a pleasant/easy distribution point for videos, but they shift their rules and make choices with no input from the world." You never know how long something will be there.

"It is extremely vulnerable, having an archive available on YouTube," says Owen. "And by extension anywhere else. SoundCloud is the same. Mixcloud. Any of these other platforms."

The Internet Is Written in Pencil

One of the dumbest lines ever to appear in an Oscar-winning screenplay comes around halfway through The Social Network, Aaron Sorkin's 2010 biopic about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. It's in a scene where Zuckerberg's ex chews him out for insulting her on his LiveJournal. "The internet's not written in pencil, Mark," she says. "It's written in ink."

Even in 2010, this was clearly untrue: Webpages disappeared all the time, especially on LiveJournal. And when a page survived, it wasn't always legible. Links went dead. Animations stopped running. Photos shriveled into missing-image icons.

As early as 1999, Stewart Brand warned of a coming "digital dark age," pointing out in Library Journal how much was already obsolete: "You may have noticed that any files you carefully recorded on 5¼" floppy disks a few years ago are now unreadable. Not only have those disk drives disappeared, but so have the programs, operating systems, and machines that wrote the files….Your files may be intact, but they are as unrecoverable as if they never existed." Brand praised the work of the "vernacular archivists" building emulators online that allowed people to, say, play video games built for archaic formats. But despite such efforts, most of the internet sure seemed to be written in pencil, not ink. "Is the net itself profoundly robust and immortal," Brand asked, "or is it the most ephemeral digital artifact of all?"

Today, with so much more of our lives online, the question hits us more forcefully. Sometimes the internet has the memory of an elephant, and sometimes it's an amnesiac. I once went to an online archive and dug up a dispatch from my first-grade class that had appeared as a newspaper filler item in 1977. But there are comments posted to Facebook less than a year ago that have already melted into the ether. The same goes for music and motion pictures: Relatively recent YouTube videos have vanished, even as online archives overflow with paleolithic public-access TV shows and other relics that once seemed lost.

But as Brand said, physical media face their own struggles with obsolescence. The situation with discarded storage and playback technologies isn't as bad with movies or music as it is with video games or word-processing files—it's easier to get your hands on a VCR than a Kaypro-era disk drive—but you can still feel those antiquated formats slowly slipping out of reach. And of course, every medium has an expiration date. With a VHS tape, deterioration can become noticeable after as little as 10 years, depending on how the cassette is stored and how often it is played.

Preservation is a constant war against decay, a war where the losses outnumber the victories and the victories are only temporary. According to the Library of Congress, roughly 70 percent of silent-era movies are now gone completely and another 5 percent survive only in part. The library's list of lost sound recordings includes commercial releases by musicians as popular as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Ethel Waters. The vast majority of NBC's pre-TV newscasts have disappeared; they're rumored to be rotting in a landfill in New Jersey.

The good news is that so many people have now joined the preservation fight, either deliberately or accidentally: The more distributed the effort, the less brittle and more resilient it will be. Like those music-swapping networks of the '90s, this web of preservationists is neither entirely online nor entirely offline. That's good too: If physical copies let you hang onto something when a stream is altered or removed, digital copies let you almost costlessly save and transmit items that otherwise would be scarce. I don't know the best way to keep our collective cultural archive alive, but I'm pretty sure it will involve an intricate interplay between the physical and the digital, not just one or the other.

And if something is saved, it can eventually resurface. Those Dylan/Cash sessions finally got an official release in 2019. I'm listening to them on Spotify as I write this. But I still have that cassette somewhere too. Just in case.