If you are interested enough to read this, you might as well just watch the movie. Steal This Film is available for free on Youtube and other locations on the internet and is less than an hour and twenty minutes in length. The film was created by a group calling itself the League of Noble Peers, for the purpose of examining copyright issues from the point of view of those who violate copyright laws, namely the so-called “pirates” and their enablers. The central message is that copying is not theft and creative enterprises have to adapt to a world of digital post-scarcity.
The first of its two parts (originally released separately), is roughly 30 minutes long and provides a history of The Pirate Bay, the popular file sharing torrent site, prior to the time of filming in 2006. It estimates that the famous torrent site receives 1 to 2 million visits per day and includes interviews with Pirate Bay founders Fredrik Neij (tiamo), Gottfrid Svartholm (anakata) and Peter Sunde (brokep), as well as members of Sweden’s Pirate Party. Much of this portion of the film is shot is Sweden, home of The Pirate Bay and the location of a raid that took place at the end of May 2006, which is gets considerable attention here. The raid followed a complaint to the Swedish government from the Motion Picture Association of America. The interviewees brag that the site was up again only a few days later and the attention generated by the raid doubled their visitor numbers. Though not directly acknowledged in the film, this is an excellent example of the Streisand effect in which attempts to stifle the spread of information causes the content in question to gain even more publicity than it otherwise would have. This is always an important reality in an era in which information wants to be free.
The film shows that many of the fears expressed by the entertainment industries are similar to older fears about such things as VHS players, recorded music, and player pianos putting previous generations of entertainers out of work. Fears, it turns out were not only were misguided, but were actually directed at developments which would become new streams of business for these industries. An interesting phenomenon which could be explored here in depth is the displacement of live music with recorded music as the industry’s primary income generator, thanks to the rise of records and tapes. The increased popularity of downloaded music may reverse this development, and one has to ask to what extent this would be a bad thing. The contributors argue that when older forms of technology had their day in court, the justice system was much more pro-consumer, but now it is much more corporatist. Richard Dreyfuss (yes, that Richard Dreyfuss) weighs in to argue that the laws surrounding copyright have to inevitably be changed with the changing times. This is the underlying theme of part one.
Part two, which is arguably the stronger of the two, covers broader ground, and puts online file sharing into a broader historical context. Contributors include Yale Law School’s Yochai Benkler, Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, and Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Fred Von Lohmann. The discussion turns to the development of the printing press and the resulting market for pirated books it spawned in 18th century France. The press freed information from scribal gate keepers and led to the fast spread of new radical ideas which fueled the Enlightenment as well as the French and American revolutions. The French state had previously given exclusive publishing rights to specific works to specific individuals, benefiting its cronies and limiting the ideas in circulation. This led to a massive industry of illegal printing and smuggling of subversive literature.
The story turns to the 20th century, when the US Department of Defense developed the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the fore-runner of the internet. ARPANET existed to making sharing of information in a decentralized manner easy for all participants. The internet retains this trait and fighting it is essentially fighting the basic nature of the internet, and is hopelessly futile. This extreme decentralization leads to the rise of networks, as a replacement for hierarchies. The film argues this implies a move away from Fordist production to lean production and fluid work places (things generally advocated by the libertarian left).
The film’s final thoughts include the idea that networks will allow more consumers to become producers as entertainment and culture becomes more decorporatized, and high-budget gate-keepers will no longer be needed. Consumers are now, no longer passive but free to manipulate existing works as they please as well as more cheaply create works of their own. Britain’s grime music scene is used as an example in the film. Here the films one short coming is its stopping short of putting copyright into the larger context of intellectual property. Much of what is said could be expanded on to cover patents, trade marks and trade secrets as well, all of which have the problem of being government granted monopolies that primarily benefit entrenched elites.
Both parts of the film provide a thought-provoking exploration of ideas that have only become more relevant since its release. Copyright critics and opponents should not only watch the film but share it, copy it and distribute it too. Ironically one does not need to actually steal it, as copying is not theft.