Month: May 2014

Ahoy, Me Piratey Mateys


It’s Marvellous What Piracy Can Do For You.

Well, maybe, anyway. Came across a the Skottie Young vs Red Bubble article (, and the general consensus is that stealing from artists, sticking the images onto merchandise and selling them for a profit as though they were your own is outright wrong with fullstops attached.

Whilst there’s no doubt there is stealing involved, it did make me wonder if there were other ways of thinking about piracy and how it actually affected individual artists – if it might not be a zero-sum game after all, and that in the chaos, complex interaction of things, it might turn out to be Not So Bad, or even Actually Quite Good.

To start off with, a few other  test cases:

1. Doujinshi and Manga Publishers


(image source:

Whilst strictly speaking, using characters whose copyright is owned by someone else and featuring them in works that you sell to make money is strictly illegal, Manga publishers have learnt to live in a sort of symbiotic relationship with Doujinshi creators. As this article mentions, “[t]raditional manga publishers, licensors and distributors agree to look the other way as long as fans don’t go too far, make too much money or stop consuming official products.

The thinking behind that is “allowing fans to produce keeps them interested, provides free market research, and cultivates new talent.”

2. Illegal Digital Downloads

Torrents, Pirate Bay, Illegal Streaming… these days you can watch just about anything without having to pay for anything besides your internet connection. Not so long ago bootlegged DVD stores sprouted up everywhere. We were told that this was killing the creative industry, but then some researchers looked into it and found that things weren’t so clearcut.

A sample of articles on why this might be so:

Why Digital Piracy May Be Good For The Creative Industry

You Will Never Kill Piracy, and Piracy Will Never Kill You

Piracy Can Be A Good Thing



(image from

But most of these are looking at piracy costs and benefits for corporations. What about individual artists? Freelancers especially, who rely on selling their work to pay the bills, where every additional revenue stream can make a difference?

Despite being a freelancer myself, even here I’m conflicted about what piracy actually means.

Walk into just about any bazaar in Southeast Asia, and you’ll likely see phone covers with images appropriated from famous designers and illustrators. In an ideal world, the creator would get a percentage of every one sold (plus a fee for licensing of course!). But are there benefits even if this does not happen? For most part I think any argument  to that effect would be built around the idea of Aura – though in a way that turns the Walter Benjamin idea on its head, and suggests that the greater the reproduction, the greater the aura that surrounds the original, or in this case, the original artist.

Quite apart from the fact that anyone whose work is getting widely pirated is probably already doing rather well withing his/her industry (compare the number of pirated imagery  of artwork by someone like, say, Bill Watterson versus,  well, some cartoonist who no one’s ever heard of), there is also possibly a sense that the more something gets distributed and seen, the greater its cultural presence and penetration. For individual artists, it might just mean that having your art stuck on phonecases that get sold in every bazaar in asia means both that you’ve achieved a tangible level of success, but also that fans will actually stump up more for your actual original artworks and prints, or  buy a book with your artwork in it.

As Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes says here, with regards to Game of Thrones being the most illegally downloaded show in the world: “Our experience is, it all leads to more penetration, more paying subs, more health for HBO, less reliance on having to do paid advertising… If you go around the world, I think you’re right, Game of Thrones is the most pirated show in the world. Well, you know, that’s better than an Emmy.

Artists should of course be able to shut down sources of piracy if they want to. In Red Bubble’s case, the issue may be one of poor internal policing, as well as a tedious process for creators who do make complaints. Maybe the problem is more that it has a verneer of  a legitimate, legal website that actively makes it easier for pirates to pirate and difficult for actual rights owners to police.

And of course I don’t have a real clue if the data would actually support the contention that piracy does end up benefitting individual creators; but it’s something worth considering; Piracy might be bad, but I wouldn’t put a full stop behind it just yet :p


EDIT: Came across this post by Cory Doctorow, who argues that “Piracy is complicated

How Writers Lose When “Piracy” Gets Harder

He cites Tim O’Reilly ‘s “The problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.”

And adds, “here’s the thing about fame: although it’s hard to turn fame into money in the arts, it’s impossible to turn obscurity into money in the arts. It doesn’t matter how you plan on making your money — selling books or downloads, selling ads, getting sponsorship, getting crowdfunded, getting commissions, licensing to someone else who’s figured out how to make money — you won’t get the chance unless people have heard of your stuff.”