The Pirate’s Dilemma

Some authors lovingly refer to their books as their children. Matt Mason calls his book “static words printed on thin slices of dead tree brought to you by a large media company.”

It’s a wonder that Mason bothered to write a book at all. In The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism, the founding editor of British music magazine RWD and former pirate radio DJ in London declares that the old way of doing things is dying: corporations are in decline, local markets are thriving, and an evolved capitalism is driven as much by altruism as by the bottom line. The book is spirited and provocative, and reading it is a little like sitting next to your smart punk-rock nephew at Thanksgiving. He talks fast and doesn’t always back up his points, but he’s fun to hang out with and might even get you thinking.

Mason argues that today’s pirates are building on the do-it-yourself ethos of punk and other youth cultures to usher in a new world order. His pirates include the guy selling bootleg DVDs of first-run films on New York’s Canal Street, teenage music fans illegally downloading the latest Madonna single, and Yusuf Hamied, the doctor who stood up to the giant pharmaceutical companies by manufacturing generic AIDS drugs to sell on the cheap in developing nations. The dilemma cited in the title is whether business and government ought to fight pirates with lawsuits and regulation, or whether they ought to shift their tactics and learn from them instead.

Not surprisingly, Mason contends that embracing piracy, rather than policing it, is the smart decision, one that invigorates markets and leads to competition and innovation. “When pirates start to appear in a market, it’s usually an indication that it isn’t working properly,” he writes. Take the case of pirate radio in the U.K. Mason calls Britain’s 150 or so pirate radio stations “musical petri dishes” that have “spawned new genres and cultures for decades.” Because pirate DJs cater to small niche audiences without any of the commercial pressures facing the corporate-sponsored radio stations, they are more open to experimenting and showcasing new talent; acid house, drum ‘n’ bass, and U.K. garage are just a few of the vibrant music scenes that started out on pirate frequencies before crossing over to the mainstream dial. Rather than engage in a losing battle with the pirate stations (new ones would pop up, whack-a-mole style, just as quickly as old ones were squashed), England’s radio industry tolerates them: as Mason says, they understand that “pirate stations make our music better.”

Compare the British example to the American music industry’s response to file sharing. At a time when overall CD sales are down, the major labels and the Recording Industry Association of America have confronted the problem by litigating to shut down illegal downloading sites like Napster and, in an ill-conceived move (from a public relations standpoint at least), suing individual kids for pirating music. “If suing customers…becomes central to a company or industry’s business model, then the truth is that that company or industry no longer has a competitive business model,” Mason notes drily. Indeed, the tactic looks like the last gasp of a wheezing dinosaur; as Mason argues, “The CD market went into decline because it became an obsolete format, peddled by an out-of-touch industry too stubborn to change.”

While the author acknowledges that “some acts of piracy are quite simply theft,” he believes there’s a better way to tackle the issue. He writes admiringly of Apple, which legitimized downloading by selling music online via iTunes; unlike CD sales, the legal download market is on the rise. Mason quotes Steve Jobs, Apple’s co-founder and CEO, who told Newsweek, “If you want to stop piracy, the way to stop it is by competing with it.” Indeed, there is ample evidence that new technology, properly harnessed, can be a boon for business. It didn’t make it into the book, but in October the British band Radiohead released its seventh album, In Rainbows, as a digital download, allowing customers to pay whatever they wished to download a copy. When the CD had its physical release in stores this month, it claimed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard albums chart.

In addition to pirate radio and file sharing, Mason offers many other examples of what he calls “punk capitalist” movements: open-source software developers who create free, user-generated content for the public good (think Linux and Wikipedia); bloggers, especially those who beat the mainstream news outlets to the major stories; remixers who mash up cultural products, creating new music, video games, and movies in defiance of copyright law.

One of the punk capitalist cultures the author treasures most is hip-hop. While critics have for years condemned rap for violent and misogynistic lyrics, Mason, ever the optimist, says (tongue only partially in cheek) that hip-hop has the potential to “bring about world peace.” He observes that hip-hop culture has, since its inception, evolved constantly and stayed true to itself, selling realism and escapism at the same time. In its decentralization and ability to thrive in many localized versions around the world, Mason calls it “a model of how globalization should work.” And with some of its biggest names, like Jay-Z, Diddy, and Russell Simmons, making both entrepreneurship and social activism cool, he sees an unprecedented opportunity. “Hip-hop has always been a radical disrupter, incredible entrepreneur, and social organizer,” he writes. “But as it increasingly uses these three skills together for social purposes, we may see changes as radical and as exciting as hip-hop’s commercial success stories.”

He may not be so specific about these changes, but you can’t fault him for lack of enthusiasm. Sometimes Mason makes broad, unsupported pronouncements whose opposite could just as easily be argued. (Is mass culture really “beginning to falter”?) Other times he seems to want to have it both ways, for example praising youth culture’s revolutionary potential only to later express regret that it has “lost some of its value.” Mason doesn’t always have the answers, but his intriguing and entertaining book certainly raises timely, compelling questions.