Director Lexi Alexander explains why she sides with pirates


InB4 —
Arrrrrrr~ mateys! There’s much common sense in this one!

When the law itself is unjust, and the ones enforcing it are corrupt, what is the right thing to do? We’ve been wrestling with this question since the dawn of corruption, a very long time ago. Is it really okay to steal from thieves, or does it just feel all right because you like free stuff?

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Is it the same old question when the audience controls the means of distribution?

Hell if I know. I’m not as smart as I look.


It’s not stealing if the owner doesn’t lose the original. It’s copying. And I refuse to feel bad for making a copy of anything. I especially don’t feel bad if it’s just for personal use of something too rare to get by legitimate means.

If the distributor isn’t willing to sell me a copy, for no other reason than laziness or greed (read region-locked content etc.), or the work is orphaned and there is no legitimate distributor, why should it be wrong for me to make a copy of it from someone else?


I’ll go further than that: if I’m too poor to have spent money on it in the first place, how can it possibly be a bad thing that I can get a free copy?


This piece goes hand in hand with Steve Albini’s recent keynote speech regarding the state of the music industry. With music, though, there’s no Hollywood required to produce it. So the record industry parasites have largely gone away (at least for low-to-mid level bands) and both creators and listeners are getting better deals.

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Not sure I’ll be totally surprised if Hollywood eventually makes the following case:

OK, we have to accept that cinema audiences might be dropping because we’re making shittier movies and not because people are copying them into their own distribution networks. We admit that’s a silly idea with no evidence to support it. But, you see, we’re only making shittier movies because people are copying them.

Personally I think the shitty movies get made purely as a tax-sink.

Does it follow that artists are not entitled to be paid for their work? Does it matter if they are cool struggling indie artists, or shallow plastic corporate sellouts? What about software developers - does their information want to be free too? If so, what shall they eat?

The side issues you raise are definitely problems that need solving. Is the solution for you to ignore the law and take what you want? I don’t have an easy answer in my back pocket, but I don’t think the solution is “do what thou wilt.”


Straw man much? The interview (which links through to a more in-depth blog post) is about the problems with the current regime of heavy-handed enforcement in the movie industry and the problems that she has with it. That is the problem being discussed here.

However, to rise to your silly point about pro-piracy folks only having a handful of examples, there is actually a fantastic example of an entirely different pro-sharing approach yielding great things, specifically the huge and massively important (and economically valuable) world of open-source software.

The problem with your position is that it basically reflects the entrenched interests. There is a constant discussion here on BoingBoing about how money allows a small proportion of society to wield disproportionate influence on laws and regulations. This is exactly in that field. Our current crop of world copyright laws are largely driven by the parties that benefited from a highly restrictive regime, and so the business models grew out of that.

Technology has now provided a route for individuals to (illegally) sidestep restrictions on use that copyright holders impose. What it highlights is the large disparity in interests between the small number of those for whom the copyright laws were enacted, and the rest of society that actually allow the laws to be enforced - evidence would suggest the majority have the upper hand here. The solution to this is not to whinge and complain about how people don’t care about art, the solution is to work out a new business model to make art in the new regime of unfettered copying.

Copyright is ultimately an agreement between society and the creators of works. That agreement is breaking down. Nobody has the right to a legally enforced business model that works counter the wider interests of society.


Ooh! Ooh! I know this one! I know this!

Because if you didn’t get a free copy, your desire for it would incentivize you to work harder and produce more and be a more morally upstanding taxpaying humanoid and that would be not only be good for the megabillionaires but also for you, because you’d become better, like Jesus, pbhn.

“Gee, I was going to live a hand to mouth existence in abject poverty, my laziness supported by the welfare state, but now that they’ve shut down bittorrent I’m totally motivated to overcome my circumstances of birth and lack of quality education and become the next Donald Trump! Nothing can keep me from the cinematical majesty of Transformers 2! Nothing I tell you! Look out world, here I come!

I’ve nauseated myself through self-administered snark overdose, I better stop.


Don’t they? I think it depends on how you define your terms, but I was with you up until this point. A stupid off-the-cuff example would be an apple tree growing in my front yard. If the yield were high enough, I might try to sell some of those apples. If the “wider interests of society” were defined in a period of relative famine, people might be morally justified to hop my fence, shinny up my tree and make off with my apples. A certain collectivist species of hippie might argue that the apples belong to everyone regardless of the current economic climate. But under most circumstances of the past couple hundred years in American society, trespassin’ and apple-swipin’ would be frowned upon.

There’s always the old argument that piracy ain’t theft because you’re only taking a copy, and then there’s the counter-argument that taking free copies devalues legitimately-sold copies to the point where the seller can’t turn any kind of profit (possibly to the point where they can’t “grow apples” anymore), and those are a different argument. If we’re talking about the “wider interests of society,” I find it difficult to imagine the right to watch a Transformers movie for free as a basic human right. So far, technology usually seems driven by greed (sometimes by owners, sometimes by users). I wish we could innovate something to protect both consumers and creators from greed. I imagine we eventually will, but there sure are a lot of self-serving arguments along the way.

I’d say there are plenty of solutions to the issue of infinite reproducibility devaluing a digital product. One way is to attach the infinitely reproducible product to something unique and much more difficult to copy. Another is to perform the art, which is essentially another way of adding uniqueness. A performance is unique and valuable to witness in person, no matter how good the recordings of it are. There are also fan and audience engagement tricks. One of these is creating a product good enough that people who download it for free can see it’s worth paying for. I’ve bought numerous games that I downloaded because I could see the quality, and the clear effort put into them. I felt like it was a worthwhile investment to pay for a legit copy, and keep playing the game.

There’s a lot of ways to make decent money from art. It just isn’t as easy as simply making the art and putting it in a distributors hands anymore. People are very interested in engaging with the artists they like, and since interpersonal experience and unique performances and objects are in high demand, they are an open avenue to generating revenue that isn’t as easily ripped off as a piece of data. Humans are naturally vitalists, that’s why a house where a murder-suicide happened is very hard to sell, and why people collect things. That vitalism is perhaps the easiest way to tap into new media markets.

Oh sure, there are lots of things one could do. A musician could release music on, say, vinyl or cassette or inside a handcrafted jeweled music box. At a certain point, this musician has to stop concentrating on making music and start learning how to be a toymaker or high-concept gimmickrist. It’s almost as if an independent filmmaker decided to release a new short on only Super 8 film just to ensure that piracy was at least slowed down; it’s ludicrous. Anyway, that’s a fairly irrelevant example. I don’t think piracy has changed the independent filmmaking scene as much as it has the music scene.

There is that. Of course, had the Beatles’ income stream been tied to live performance, they would have gone broke and disbanded after Rubber Soul, when they stopped touring. Or they would have felt compelled to continue touring and the resulting stress may well have broken them up sooner. That, of course, was a very different time, but surely you understand that there are plenty of talented musicians out there who love to make music, but aren’t particularly into live performance.

What bugs me about all this is that musicians (and filmmakers, to an extent) are now compelled to deal with this shit, whether they want to or not… and all because the growing consensus is that if somebody records a piece of music and listeners want to hear it, those listeners should rightfully be able to obtain it, listen to it, and decide whether or not they want to pay for it, regardless if they keep listening to it or not. I do feel that such an arrangement should be possible, if the artists choose to make it possible. But since that’s not the way the cookie crumbles anymore, artists are forced to give their shit away and hope somebody is decent enough to pay them something to help keep the lights on.

I find that regrettable. And that development kept me from furthering my own musical ambitions. A former bandmate of mine occasionally supplements his income in a Clash cover band. It keeps his chops up, he has fun, nobody loses (except maybe the estate of Joe Strummer, but that’s very slightly beside the point). He and I used to write songs together, some of them pretty good. For a brief time we considered being a Real Band, gigging, releasing some of our recordings, maybe touring. And then we looked around and realized that not only was making this a slightly profitable venture a total pipe dream, but we’d lose so much money doing this with no hope of monetizing anything, that we skulked back to our day jobs and resigned ourselves to living mundane lives as pre-emptive failures.

Hell, doing it for the money wouldn’t have been a valid reason for doing it anyway. It just would have been nice to sell enough songs to slightly offset the cost of making them. But it takes more dedication than we possessed to make that a reality, and maybe that’s for the better.

Whatever. Y’all do what you want. I’m not gonna pirate anything.

Right, so as you say, it’s about definition of terms. The point isn’t that it might not sometimes be desirable to enforce a business model contrary to the wider interests of society, just that nobody has a right to that. That said, surely your example is a case of the wider interests of society being protected against short term interests (the wider interests of society involve protection of the golden goose). Clearly there are blurry edge cases, though I don’t think creative works will end (indeed, the evidence suggests the opposite) in light of unfettered copying, and regardless, I still don’t think anyone has the right to maintain their business model if the rest of society disagrees.

There is a broader and fascinating perspective to this and your second point. One can argue that the societal, and by extension the economic (in the broadest sense), benefit of easily copyable works is being artificially restricted in order to shoehorn them into a model of scarcity that society was built upon. If we consider what the implications would be of maximising the economic benefit, almost certainly it would involve allowing free copying*.

There is then a question of whether it’s possible that creators of works can in some way tap some of the economic benefit of their creation. Open source software is one way, in which at least one model is share-and-share-alike - you can use and modify my works, but you have to give me the same benefits I offered you. As a creator, I don’t benefit directly from the economic gains I create, but I do benefit from the general improvements as the tower grows. This works well for software but not so well for music where the remixing value is arguably lower.

Is there some other model? Consider a hypothetical world in which somehow the true economic value of a creation can be measured and quantified - let’s say with some robust form of “likes”, or usage stats or something and let’s pretend it can’t be easily gamed. Well, now we have a basis of a currency! You have some value that you can sell, or exchange for other goods and services.

Even more interestingly, such a sub-economy already exists and has for some time - specifically that of academic publishing. Your paper count (weighted by impact and so on) is your academic worth. You can trade your academic worth to get prestigious posts, nice speaking engagements, trips to various exotic places, fancy dinners and so on. And that’s with a very flaky 19th century model of establishing the value of research through the peer-review system (which most certainly is not immune to gaming). It is very much in an academics interest to have their paper as widely disseminated as possible.

I sadly don’t have many answers here, just a few tantalising what-ifs, but clearly, artificially restricting copying to make it fit a scarcity model is just one way of handling creative goods, and I posit it is not the best way to maximise the economic benefit of that creation.


*There might be a few edge cases in which the value is precisely due to scarcity - first editions and original paintings for example - but I don’t know what this means in the context of digital works, and in any case no one argues an original Rembrandt is devalued because there are millions of prints of it since the “value” is in the object, not the representation.

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For better or for worse, this is the way it was for the first 99,900 years of human existence, and the 100 year blip (or ~300 years in the case of books) in which a creation was tied to a physical good is coming to an end. What happens next is very much up in the air and it’s not like there was a shortage of artists prior to the recording revolution - they just had to work harder for less money and most died in relative obscurity (not saying this is a good thing, just that people did it anyway).

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I don’t see it that way. I would rephrase as “and all because it’s no longer possible to place economic barriers between the people making art and the people who want to copy it, when the average person seems to be perfectly willing to ignore the possible consequences of not paying artists for copies of their art.”

Pragmatically speaking, many consumers of art are turning out ot have no more scruples about copying art than the majority of producers of art have, and that’s a problem under the existing economic paradigm. It means even the greatest artists may eventually have to get day jobs, like the rest of us.

Personally I pay for my music, because I want my favored artists to make more art than they could if they had to have day jobs. But I almost never see other regular people make this connection.

In my opinion, there’s not really any sort of consensus like you posited, because it’s simply not that well thought out. It’s incredibly rare to see someone put up an actual considered argument like Ms. Alexander has, or like Cory sometimes does. Most people don’t think about it at all… they just click the magic thingy that magically makes music happen.


I’m trying to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not just accuse them of swiping free music and movies simply because they can. (Perhaps justifying this act, which still seems like theft to me, by telling themselves if anyone’s being ripped off, it’s the EEEEVIL multinational billionaire labels and studios, rather than the artists.) I still think it is just and proper to pay for the things I enjoy, and even for the things I’m rolling the dice on, like a movie I haven’t seen yet (might suck!) or a record full of songs I haven’t yet heard (could blow!). I figure if an artist makes an album available for streaming, like a free preview, then that’s great, and saves me from having to risk money on music of unknown quality. But it’s up to them to make that choice. It’s not up to me to sneak into their studio, rifle through their tapes, listen to them anywhere from once to a thousand times, and then decide if I feel like paying for it. And yet this principle of mine makes me a sucker, a rube, a relic of the benighted 20th century.

Meanwhile, one of my favorite bands has to tour and tour and tour, doing club gigs all over the world, and working 9-to-5 jobs in between, because they can’t make any money off their recordings. I habitually buy two t-shirts at their gigs and toss one to somebody there who otherwise wouldn’t buy one. And when a new album comes out, I buy four copies and give three to buddies of mine who like to listen to them but would rather download than pay.

Yeah, I am a sucker.