Killer Features: The Vitality of Piracy Cultures
University of California, Berkeley
As experienced facilitators of an undergraduate discussion course on The Politics of Piracy, the authors are uniquely positioned to contribute analyses of several, specific Piracy Cultures. Questions about the relationships between content creators and consumers are posed to two self-identified pirates, each members of piracy groups. The results indicate creator-consumer relationships are present, but are merely one in a set of crucial motivations for piracy–elements herein called killer features. One case study delves into the world of LUElinks, a private linksharing community that is as much social network as media provider. The other explores the world of BakaBT and anime communities which exist in large part through shared “fansubs”–peer-produced, superior translations of sometimes unlicensed Japanese animation.
Keywords: Media Piracy, Piracy Cultures, Social Networks, Anime, Fansub, Killer Features, Creator-Consumer Relationship, Communities of Practice
Consider piracy. Consider the pirates. They are the digital citizens and deviants that operate outside the set confines of institutional rules. While their actions are unbound, they bond together in outsider status, inevitably creating their own cultures as they go. These cultures are not typically inspected. There is a boundary between the Piracy Cultures and the corporate cultures of the media industry. Typically we inspect the shape and movements of the institutionalized industry to see its influence on the gate between the two camps. Yet symmetrically, there exists another vantage point on this divide: the shape and movement of Piracy Cultures. Focusing on Piracy Cultures is an opportunity to dust away questions of legality and examine the piracy–and pirates–for what they are worth, for what they might tell us about the future condition of that border between the media organizations’ domain, and the space exterior.
At UC Berkeley the border of the student-instructor dynamic has been breached. Undergraduates, through a long-running program, have the opportunity to initiate and facilitate credit-bearing courses. One such course is Politics of Piracy, through which the authors have critically examined piracy as discussion leaders. Author one facilitated the course for four semesters until Fall 2010 and Author two facilitated for the second time this Spring 2011, a total of four years between them. The authors hold unique positions as student-scholars. They are close to many piracy practitioners: some students enrolled in the course and some student-pirates outside the classroom. Additionally they have immersed themselves in the academic field, steeped in piracy research and current events.
A recent landmark event was the release of Media Piracy in Emerging Economies a report by the Social Sciences Research Council (2011). Summarily they found that “piracy is better conceived as a failure of affordable access to media in legal markets.” While claiming that affordability stands as one of the main tenets to subvert legality in acquiring media, they fail to complete the thought. The Social Sciences Research Council (2011) declares that “increasingly, commercial pirates face the same dilemma as the legal industry: how to compete with free” (p. 53) in their analysis of organized crime’s role in piracy. This would suggest that resellers of pirated content are contending with legitimate distribution on the linear factor of pricing, that the end consumer’s choice is simply a function of money. Yet this curiously arrives at a contradiction, as resellers have not yet become extinct everywhere. As a distribution channel, they must add some incentive to purchase the media in order for their business to exist, even if only geographic convenience. Likewise, the authors of this paper contend “piracy as distribution” possesses (in a re-branding of the popular marketing buzzwords) killer features that differentiate piracy in the spectrum of all available options. Some of those distinguishing features have been analyzed through the lens of the economic concept of commons-based peer-production.
In The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler (2006) attempts to understand disparate practices of production that challenge canonical economic precepts. Benkler gives an engineering view of peer-to-peer file-sharing (including piracy) as, “a highly efficient system for storing and accessing data in a computer network.” This is a useful interpretation since it too shaves away legality to approach more essential qualities of a dynamic, rich set of solutions. Further, it encourages an approach Benkler purports throughout his work–to examine critically an unfamiliar or seemingly inexplicable system (with respect to networks) as a creative innovation. The creative innovation while lauded by forward-thinkers, is not an instantly accepted salvation for all, it is subject to what regulators may think of it. They are less likely to be impressed by clever coding alone.
The regulatory literature comprehends piracy in its relation to copyright expansion as the bolstering of exclusive rights regimes made successful through policy change enabled by industry lobbying. Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture includes an apt metaphor of the narrative of a long-term, unsuccessful foray into both federal lawsuits and policy reform on copyright (2004). Being 2011 today, seven years distant, one witnesses significant changes in piracy and social use of the internet. A more recent legal work by Annemarie Bridy (2009) expresses the further compounding frustration of both public and private regulatory practices. Bridy analyzes the issues of regulation and enforcement up until today, emphasizing a failure of the regulation of goods, networks, and user behavior in a manifest self-regulation in the user.
Burdensome regulation has meant that in order to make distribution work for digital goods, large, influential organizations are needed. The complexity of regulation dictates that any satisfying solution will have large overhead, and the organizations have looked to create design and user experience attractions to make palatable the passing of that overhead. As an example, Blythe, Mark and Wright recommend the music industry drop intimidation and embrace enchantment (2008)–a distinctly affective strategy reminiscent of Apple’s “environment” model, and of course, iTunes, the generally lauded “gatekeeper” of music (Wingfield 2007). Other examples include Google Books, which provides an equivalent analogy for the publishing industry. An example closer to our research is the praised Steam, a stand-alone distribution software for computer games (Gambotto-Burke 2007).
With a growing number of increasingly elaborate digital gatekeepers, one of the internet’s original promises of disintermediation is broken. As outlined by Brown and Duguid (2000) in The Social Life of Information, disintermediation in an increasingly networked society is far from clear. It is argued that a future of disintermediation is a myth. The institutions that lay between the creator and the consumer are not shrinking, and are perhaps expanding. Even if institutions were disintermediating, Brown and Duguid (2000) explain that “it requires a profoundly naive belief in disitermediation to assume that all links that fall between […] are somehow interference in the information channel” (p. 6). The chains of connections that are the information channel from creator to consumer are not simply resistors with each additional link contributing more impedance in the institutional frameworks. But is the same true for information channels outside of the official media intermediaries, for those in Piracy Cultures?
Given the various approaches to piracy in the academic literature, the authors have discerned that few take on the perspective of understanding the relationship at the core of this issue of Piracy. The creation and exchange of goods, examined as a black box, takes place between creator and consumer. There is some relationship that exists, however mediated, between the originators of some good, and the consumer or end-user. Investigating Piracy Cultures from the hinterland of the pirate’s perspective, to which the authors have a rare point of entry, elucidates valuable understandings of this underlying relationship. On the other hand, research revealed the relationship between creators and consumers, while evident, is merely one in a range of crucial, killer features existing in and of Piracy Cultures.
The research questions at the outset of this paper were: In Piracy Cultures, how important is the relationship between content creator and consumer? What does this relationship look like? How does this play out through intermediaries? How do pirates consider or deal with the issue of compensation?
Through posing these questions, the suggestion is made that there is value in understanding the nature of the relationship (or lack thereof) between content creators and consumers since it is the fundamental, underlying issue of all forms of piracy. Understanding more fully how some Piracy Cultures view and practice this relationship will thus help inform our general understandings of piracy, which has implications for the role of institutionalized markets, suggests insights into perceptions of policy, and begins to address the question of whether piracy will remain a perpetual counter-culture.
The hypothesis held prior to research was that in Piracy Cultures, pirates feel a closer connection to content creators than they do through institutionalized markets. It is put forth that piracy could bring creators and consumers together rather than obscure or destroy obligations between them; they form a closer peer-to-peer relationship, so to speak.
The research was conducted through separate, semi-structured interviews with two self-described pirates who currently maintain membership to piracy groups. Each was asked a common set of questions and asked additional follow up questions as topics arose out of their responses. Questions focused on three main areas, in order: the facts of their content consumption, details and practices concerning Piracy Cultures around content consumption, and their relationship with content creators.
The interviewees had not previously shared their personal experiences with the authors. Hence, our interviews were the first time they had discussed explicitly (in any amount of detail) the culture and practices of themselves and their Piracy Cultures with respect to academic research.
Case Study #1 – Melinda
Within the last few years, Melinda joined LUElinks, a private social networking website with an active message board, a member-created site-wide poll each day, and a healthy database of links to material (including software, games, video, photos, and audio), aggregated so members of the board can locate and reproduce the content, often without the permission of copyright holder(s). According to Melinda, these links typically come from cloud storage services, most prominently MegaUpload. Melinda is active on LUElinks to this day, reading and posting on the various message boards and downloading content located through the site’s links, especially movies and documentaries. Additionally, she has come to develop an interest in the masses of unlicensed images and pictures posted on the message boards. However, she rarely uploads content, citing a few cases in which she discovered some content had not already been shared. She proceeded to pirate the material through a torrent, upload to MegaUpload, and, finally, enter a new link in the site database.
Though Melinda is a woman, on LUElinks she pretends (often implicitly) to be a man. This is a mechanism to protect herself from harassment, solicitations for pictures or “e-pussy,” unwanted attention through the creation of message board threads about her, and general denigration as an object with inferior intellect and worth. Melinda’s intentions are both to be free of harassment and to hold a reasonable amount of credibility through other posters’ respect–something she believes she would lose if she were to identify as female. Interestingly, Melinda claims not to be the only woman who is incognito. To this effect, she references the results of a site poll as well as a confirming message on a thread she started on the “anonymous” message board asking whether there are other women who pretend to be men on LUElinks.
LUElinks is a portmanteau of the acronym LUE, which stands for “Life, the Universe, and Everything,” and the word “links,” referring to the links to media content for which the site exists. The expansion of LUE is a phrase popularized by Douglas Adams’ comic radio show cum book cummovie, The Hitchhiker*fs Guide to the Galaxy. According to Melinda, and long before her time, LUElinks originated from a “Life, the Universe, and Everything” themed message board on the GameFAQs website forum. According to LUElink mythology, this corner of the forum received much attention from moderators due to conduct that violated the terms of service agreement, including supposedly lewd posting and, of course, alleged piracy. At some point, this discussion reached a critical mass at which a user, known by the handle Llamaguy, broke off from GameFAQs and created an independent message board that was private to only original LUE users and whose purpose was to support freely the file-sharing that took place on the board. Thus LUElinks was born.
Later, during Melinda’s tenure on LUElinks, the community began to express concern about the US government enforcing copyright by cracking down on media sharing sites similar to LUElinks. It is unclear what motivated the final decision, but eventually Llamaguy decided to migrate the site to a new domain. The site was moved to endoftheinter.net, where it currently remains. However, members of the site still refer to themselves and each other as LUElinkers. Additionally, LUElinkers actually meet in the physical world. Melinda reports meet-ups are usually organized to play games on a local area network. She does not attend partly due to lack of interest and partly because she does not want to reveal her identity.
Case-Study #2 – William
Years ago, William attended a University summer program created to introduce high school students to college-level work in computer science and mathematics. He met a student there who gave him a different introduction–an introduction to piracy. Within days William had filled his 60 gigabyte hard drive to the brim with all sorts of media, and in the moment he was unable to download further, he realized something. He needed more space. In High School, a classmate introduced William to Japanese animation, or anime. His interest in pirating anime (as well as other media) blossomed as he entered college. In the school dormitories, William became a sizable file-sharing node on their internal network. He hosted and permitted the duplication of content through a peer-to-peer software called DC++, their version of which was tweaked by students in William’s dorm.
Since he no longer lives in the dorms, William largely pirates through other means. He is a member of a campus anime club that has regular meetings, hosts events such as an annual anime conference, and holds weekly screenings. There are physical exchanges of anime through USB drives, as well as independent piracy through other avenues. Among those other avenues, William uses BakaBT, a torrent tracking site that provides access to an array of torrents of complete anime series, listed after meeting quality requirements. Access to BakaBT is not restricted to registered users, however, registration is open to the public and carries perks like better search and the ability to upload. Another torrent site William uses for general downloading purposes is Demonoid, a popular, public, “everything and the kitchen sink” type of tracker. Many anime series that are not licensed in the United States, and thus do not have any supported distribution method, are only available through piracy. Sometimes these series are dubbed over in other languages, such as English, but most often they are sub-titled by fans, aptly named “fansubs.”
William is a computer gamer, and in some circumstances he pirates games he likes to play regularly or simply wants to try. He also pirates music, but since they are oldies from the 70s and 80s, he believes his piracy is justified because those songs’ copyright should have expired. William argues copyright law is supposed to support creativity, so making profit from old songs, to him, is unreasonable. On the other hand, William only pirates software that he believes to be unreasonably priced based on his expected use and what he considers a fair charge. William will pay for Windows 7 at the student price of $40, but refuses to pay even the student price of the Adobe Creative Suite since the amount he will use the software is very minimal–only every once in a while–and not for commercial purposes. As a computer scientist, he intends to practice his software price ideals in his future work.
In the case of Melinda, piracy is largely a backdrop, an implicit assumption of a practicing community of content consumers. LUElinks is a place she goes for stand-alone entertainment and socializing as much as it is a reliable place to locate media she desires. As for William, the type of content is a clear, major factor as to how he performs piracy and why. For example, William’s anime piracy takes place between several different groups, including physical and virtual interactions–and in the case of a demonoid torrent, there is no human-to-human interaction at all other than the tacit transfer of the content itself. The value of these case studies lies in, the particularities and minutia of their cultures and behaviors, on which the following results will focus.
Douglas Adams seemed to be the first port-of-call for a possible fandom subculture. We asked Melinda if people talk about Douglass Adams on LUElinks, to which she clarified, “I imagine on the original board they did, but no. It’s gone, […] it is its own entity […] it doesn’t really bring up images of Hitchhicker’s Guide anymore.” And fair enough, perhaps one can read too much into a namesake. What then, were some of Melinda’s favored creators? Louis Theroux was the only name shortlisted in her mind, so we prodded on what discussions there were about Theroux on LUElinks? “There was a topic recently that just listed all of his stuff on Youtube so you can go watch it, […] people giving their thoughts, now let’s see how many pages this went to?” She clicks on her laptop, “Average, I mean, the big ones stay on the front board a lot longer.” Melinda did have something to say about the man behind the documentaries, but it was unenthusiastic and the other LUElinkers corroborated by their relative absence of opinion.
The front board is the section where the site’s hottest discussion occurs, and Melinda even once herself started a topic about a creator that “got stickied” there for a time–Michael Cera. Yet the purpose was decidedly not fan-like. There was an official online poll of where Michael Cera should tour in support of his new film, “I just happened to notice in one of these metropolitan areas there was an ITT Tech. So I thought it would be kind of cool to make Michael Cera go on a national tour of ITT Techs.” LUElinks mobilized to skew the vote, “and we were leading in Boston and SF Bay area until the last few days.” Sending this celebrity actor astray highlights the LUElink mentality towards the origins of the media: unimportant, and even laughable. The artists here are at best shrugged off, and at worst humiliated. These figures for Melinda are not deserving of any figure other than zero when the topic of compensation arises. “I’m too poor,” she says, and that mindset along with creator irrelevance means she need not think any further about indemnity. The relationship for this Piracy Culture towards creators varies between uninterested and satirical.
On the existence of Anime Club, William explains, “we’re a group of people because of our interest, not because of any prior planning, we sort of pirate the same things.” The scope of the pirated media for them is narrow and it’s only specific media that brings them together. William acts as a bridge between Anime Club and BakaBT “because I pirated anime a lot before I joined, I was an ideal candidate to continue pirating anime for them.” Creators play a crucial role in both of these Piracy Cultures; they are not substitutable. “It’s something that, that we would, that the rest of America would never see unless it was [fan]subtitled.” When asked which anime William enjoyed, the titles and creators were forthcoming. “Studios that come to mind are Kyoto animation, and also Studio Shaft, which is one of my favorites, just because they produce really random off-the-wall stuff. The thing with Shaft is that, anything Shaft produces is never going to get licensed in the United States, it’s too crazy. There’s no market for it. The problem is that when they do license stuff, its stuff that’s airable on TV, that’s mass-marketable, not niche stuff that I would like.” For William much of his anime piracy is about acquiring content made by Studio Shaft by way of fansubs. Anime pirates’ enjoyment is indebted in large part to the labor and work of these creators, and William, at least, is well aware of this relation.
The appreciation of this work and knowledge of the law is displayed through a sensitivity and discrimination in piracy. As a representative William clarifies they are “careful when picking the shows showing in Anime Club next season because, our policy is that we don’t show something if it gets licensed.” Pirating anime shows yet to be licensed in the U.S. is okay, but if the anime becomes licensed then it is strictly hands off, “because of our industry friends that sponsor us, we don’t want to step on their toes.” Anime Club is sponsored by some official distribution intermediaries who support their conventions and events. Cognizant of the formal process of copyright and licensing, the Anime Club stays within important self-imposed bounds because they recognize the mutual benefits of symbiosis with distributors and producers. To illustrate the extent of respect of this process, fans will comply regardless of their own appreciation of a given work. William relates that some in Anime Club “that watch fansubs were unhappy [when some popular anime showings were cancelled] because [companies] have been so trigger-happy with their licensing.” However, the club agrees to cease showings nonetheless, when the shows are licensed.
On downloading from BakaBT we ignorantly asked why those on the tracker did not “vote with their dollars?” The responding bombast is telling: “There’s no way we can! We have no means. If I purchase, let’s say a boxset of the Japanese version, it’s useless to me. I don’t know enough Japanese for it to be useful to me, there’s no way to vote with our money.” Then he displays some affection “I know Studio Shaft for a fact went through some really hard times last season and I would have loved to provide them with some kind of monetary compensation. I feel helpless sometimes. I want to help these guys out, and there’s no way of doing it.” An understanding is evident that consumption must be a dialogue where consumers support the creator; else the creator may not be able to supply the consumer. This Piracy Culture may not have created any material profit in an institutional sense, but it has created a connection between creator and consumer, an empathy which is a perfect stage for potential capitalization. “I really wish there was some way I could show how much I like, I adore their material.” This is a feeling made possible through Piracy.
No direct correlation is clear between the act of piracy and the relation between creator and consumer. The case studies presented here are disparate stories of both apathy and great care from the consumer to the creator. Rejecting the hypothesis, the evidence suggests Piracy Cultures do not necessarily promote a common a desire or motivation to relate to their artists. But Piracy Cultures can offer a closer connection as a feature, such as in William’s case. In Melinda’s case the closeness, not to creator, but to other consumers is a major aspect of LUElinks. In the research Piracy Cultures produce not merely free content distribution services, but importantly imbued goods with significant additional value.
LUElinks is a showcase of a mastery in a user-generated user experience. With only simple message board software, a thriving community shines as the main attraction. In a wondrous state, on the topic of the image-posting threads on LUElinks, Melinda told us, “I’ve gotten actually drawn in to just looking at them for hours at a time, I don’t know… they’re just nice pictures to look at.” Her difficulty in explanation is around a hypnotic phenomenon, akin to that of the enigmatic and legendary imageboard, 4chan.org. The imageboards of photoshopped humour are a type of “sharing” themselves though more focused around discussion of topics than exchange of images, and serve more as a vessel for social networking. Like aPlayboy reader, but in earnest, she admits “honestly, it’s just interesting, I enjoy reading the topics. I mean look at my tabs (she points to a browser tab bar of closely nestled LUElinks icons), it’s all fucking LUElinks.” On other boards users answer questions, share fitness tips, discuss commonplace grievances, and give advice on life. The community at LUElinks is its killer feature. LUElinks is entertainment and a secure, vibrant community in Melinda’s life, infinitely more than a dumb pipe for media.
BakaBT isn’t just a torrent tracker, it’s purveyor of luxury and hard-to-find items. They offer only entire seasons of anime, a collector’s pleasure, and crucially (for non-Japanese speakers) fansubbed anime. Carrying only complete collections of anime highlights the serious and dedicated nature of BakaBT ideology. Yet, the most killer feature for BakaBT is the access to fansubbed anime. BakaBT gives the users what they want, William relays that institutional distributors “don’t expect people to want subtitles they expect them to want dubs.” Anime lovers and researchers attest that fansubs have major upshots (Mäntylä 2010). The first and most obvious is shared with dubbing, that you can watch a Japanese-only anime even if you are an English-only consumer. The second is a trophy of commons-based peer production. Fans are collaboratively translating their favorite anime to make subtitles that are, as William opines, “in a lot of ways better than professional subtitling. Fansbbers are actually superior because they actually care about what they’re translating.” But it’s not just William that holds fansubbing in high regard, in an ironic twist of fate, the U.S. distributors do too. William shared this anecdote with us:
just recently there was a show on TV called “Greatest Otaku” or something like that … basically they took a tour of Funimation studios where they do the dubbing, and they had a shot, the shot that eveyone’s talking about, a shot into the ‘dub’ room. They had an anime on screen that they were dubbing. The strange thing about the anime on screen that they were dubbing was, the subtitles. Looking at the anime it looks very normal, except the subtitles looked nice, you thought ‘the subtitles look nice, what’s going on here?’ […] It’s a fan sub […] they’ve been crusading against fansubbers, and they’re just hypocrites!
A favored scandal by the anime community, the debacle serves as evidence for the legitimacy and quality of fansubbing (“Downloaded … ” 2011). High speed downloads of almost professionally archived anime, with better than professional subtitling, of locally unavailble content are the killer features that bring William BakaBT. The price is free as well, but to hold that as the main feature would miss the point.
Major and direct market indicators came from our research, evident in the piracy of games. The first and most powerful was a trope that both Melinda and William gave with verbatim duplicate phrasing: “Try before you buy.” The concept is self explanatory but meaningful. On LUElinks there is a practice: “it’s a pretty common sentiment that if you really really like something, you’ll pay money for it. You’ll even see people in the link page if they really liked it, they’ll come back and post ‘I’m buying this.’ […] but generally, the rule of thumb is you try it out first.” On LUElinks, buying is the greatest flattery for a game on your hard disk, “you already have it obviously, that’s how you show support for the [developer].” Post-play purchase was also a sentiment echoed by William who says he likes to, “follow the try before you buy mentality, I’ll pirate a game, try it out, and if I like it enough I’ll buy it from the company.” For whatever it is worth gamers seem to be united in this modus operandi, a signal the market could well heed.
A second related signal comes from seeing Piracy as a pricing problem in the same way as the Social Sciences Research Council does (2011). When a gamer sees a price as reasonable, sometimes try before you buy is too cumbersome. William chimes, “if it’s on Steam and it’s cheap, I won’t even pirate it in the first place. There are so many games in my steam library that I haven’t even played because they were only five dollars.” Steam is already a well heralded market solution but the admission coming from an active pirate is one not to be ignored. Although it may be the case that free cannot be beaten, the monetary price is not the only cost in acquiring a game; there are levers that the institutional markets could pull to draw more pirates to their services.
Piracy Cultures allow their users to be the lever-operators and cog-designers of their own engines. In being their own engineers they have developedkiller features. A glimpse of this is evident in the research. From Melinda it is seen that any market solution offered to her must have strong social networking components among the consumer base: the country-club style community. From William it is seen that to be drawn to any market solution it must provide him access to the niche long tail content he desires (Anderson 2004). Also he wants assurance the distributors and subtitlers care as much about the content as himself. Some of the killer features here have clear conversion potential for creator compensation. William regrets that he is powerless to give his beloved content creators any innovation stipend. Realistically though, not all Piracy Culture’s killer features could be directly employed in the task of reimbursing the creators. Whether or not these features could be cashed in on indirectly is another question that will require creativity to answer in the positive. However, in all cases, the killer features do signal auxiliary desires fulfilled by their distribution mechanism. You need not be a behavioral economist to calculate difference in appeal between institutionalized markets and Piracy Cultures; when faced with the choice, no one says “give me the more expensive, less convenient, less valuable one.”
The research shows some Piracy Cultures have evolved to provide built-in supplementary and value-addition services to suit their users’ desires. Institutional Markets may view these services as necessary additions in order to compete. Of course when viewing killer features as market demands, they aren’t accompanied with a clear solution on compensating creators; there is not much negotiation forthcoming on that front from pirates. In order to know whether the future holds these Piracy Cultures as perpetual counter-cultures or not will be reliant on whether institutions shift to accommodate the above-outlined consumer demands, or effectively declare an impasse. Therefore until either one is solved, a conundrum is problematized: is society more content with the unsettled issue of creator compensation or unmet consumer demands?
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