Matt Mason, author of the best-selling book, The Pirate’s Dilemma, shares his views with us why piracy will now, and in the future, impact everything from the global economy, to the toppling of repressive governments.
By A. Smythe
Back in the day, it was easy to recognize a Pirate. Of course there was the ubiquitous wooden leg, arm with a hook on the end, the enigmatic eye patch, and the ever requisite black skull and arms hat—Pirate haute couture in its day and age. Today it’s so much more difficult to identify Pirates because they look just like you and me. According to Matt Mason’s new book, “The Pirate’s Dilemma” (Free Press), that might be because in fact, they are you and me. Rather than roaming the seas looking for Davy Jones’ locker, today’s Pirates can be identified as anyone who downloads free music, television shows, films, e-books, software, games—the list goes on and on. Or some Pirates you might meet look just like your everyday capitalists in a suit and tie, who rip-off high-end fashion designs, create affordable knock-off drugs for impoverished countries, or churn out the $5 Rolodex you can buy on every metropolitan street corner in the world.
In fact, piracy is one of the fastest growth industries/hobbies in the world. According to various statistics, 60% of the world is downloading pirated software, 148 of 151 Oscar nominated films were available online and being downloaded well before Oscar night, and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (AFPI) says that 95% of downloaded music is pirated—there’s so many more statistics of that kind where those came from, it becomes apparent that in every industry, the majority of the world’s citizens are in some way or other using pirated goods.
It depends on your point of view—and which side of the desk (deck) you’re sitting on–if the Pirate invasion is a good thing or a bad thing. In Mason’s book, that’s what he refers to as “the Pirate’s dilemma. “The idea is that there’s a kneejerk reaction amongst ‘legitimate businesses’ that piracy across the board is a bad thing,” Mason says. “But the dilemma that needs to be examined is: if you actually take a step back and look at it objectively, is that always true?” Mason says that he doesn’t believe that it’s piracy in and of itself that’s the problem. Instead, it all depends on the context in which that piracy is taking place, and he makes the argument that often piracy can actually be a very positive force both for legitimate businesses and consumers. “Piracy can actually be very profitable for the very businesses that are the ones proclaiming most loudly that piracy will be the end of them,” Mason explains. “When legitimate businesses examine why the pirates are doing so well where they’re failing, they can learn from the pirates and improve their own bottom line.” Mason recommends that businesses, rather using their considerable weight to try to exterminate the pirates, might do better to examine why the pirates are so successful, and learn how to compete with them, and one up them.
“Especially if you’re talking about the modern world, there’s so much research and development happening unofficially that the hacker kids are doing–kids hacking the old business models or products, and evolving them,” Mason points out. Mason says this free labor pool results in some of the most popular pirated products, and are created by some of the most talented developers. “That really allows cost savings for the industry as a whole, rather than if the companies had to pay for that R&D themselves,” Mason points out. “In the best case scenario, the pirates and the legitimate companies can be inspired by each other, and that’s how you get new trends and innovations in the businesses being affected by piracy.”
Mason says Nike is a prime example of how a large corporation has actively learned from the pirates. “A pirate fashion designer took a very famous Nike shoe brand, and simply put a star by the famous Nike swoosh, and offered the shoe in garish, very hip colors that were created by the youth culture for the youth culture,” Mason explains as one case in point. Mason says the young pirate designers made a fortune, and that the usual response by a large international conglomerate like Nike would be to come down on them hard legally. But what he says was unusual in this case was Nike’s reaction to the infringement on their copyright. “Instead of sending their lawyers in with guns blazing, they examined what the pirates had done so differently to meet with such success,” Mason says.
He explains that after Nike studied the situation, they decided that the pirates had actually been very clever by recognizing what their target audience—the youth market—wanted (the pirates in this case being part of that youth culture themselves). So rather than fight it out in court, Nike instead took a page from the pirate’s playbook, and came out with their own line of shoes that used the pirates’ understanding of what the young people were interested in and one-upped the pirates. “It’s a great example where piracy had a positive effect on the market by helping Nike to understand their target audience better, and it was a win/win situation since there was plenty of room for both the pirates and Nike to make money off the concept.”