Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/10/13/ica_debate/

ICA's Reg-freetard smackdown: Low bodycount

Where were the targets?

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Media, 13th October 2008 11:24 GMT

To the Institute of Contemporary Arts on The Mall, where your reporter was pitched in a head-to-head with Matt Mason last week, in an event billed as a "Freetard smackdown". That's a prospect that could frighten the Horse Guards. So what happened?

Matt's book, The Pirate's Dilemma, is subtitled "How Youth Culture Reinvented Capitalism" and what a week to be discussing capitalism. Matt gives his book away for free to promote his speaking and consulting business, which commands well into five figures a time, telling people to pinch stuff. Or something.

ICA's Pirate Debate

But there was no smackdown - partly because we were far too polite with each other, and partly because the expected hordes of angry freetards didn't show up. Maybe they really don't like paying - and a tenner is a lot to ask to hear two people you've never heard of speak on something you've heard discussed hundreds of times. Or maybe they only come out to events where the quotient of like-minded people is above a certain figure, like Ian Brown's lynching party at the LSE. Birds of a feather do flock together - and so do feather-brained birds.

So because of that, or perhaps inspite of that, there were loads of good questions raised.

I tried to stick to larger themes, avoiding the specifics of Matt's book. There are passages in The Pirate's Dilemma that I've read several times and they still don't mean anything to me. Here's an example:

Punk capitalists are resisting authority - by leveraging DIY technologies and the power of individuals connecting and working together as equals. This twin engine of the new economy is creating new ways all of us can live and work, leaving old systems for dust. Technology + Democracy = Punk Capitalism.

I mean, where do you start?

Is Richard Branson a punk capitalist? I opted for the cowardly approach, and didn't enquire.

We opened with a brief outline and then questions, from moderator James Harkin and the audience. For the benefit of non-Reg readers there's a recap of my introduction at Spiked! Online here (I didn't write the headline). I said I enjoyed Matt's optimism, but challenged his conviction that the phenomena he observed would lead to "a more democratic strain of capitalism". In the music business, for example, the biggest were squeezing out the smallest, while the value of sound recordings continued to crash, ultimately harming everybody. It seemed to me there was a lot of wishful thinking going on here. Simply because new technologies looked transformative, everything would turn out for the best. This is pure utopianism.

Matt Mason

Matt Mason

A real problem I found is that when Matt writes about "piracy" he refers to two or maybe three different things. There's the "borrowing and reusing ideas" - cultural appropriation, which is quite natural. Then there's the "stealing goods", which covers counterfeiting and legal P2P. But Matt spreads his definition even broader, to cover any entrepreneurial or cultural activity that takes place bottom-up, rather than top-down, such as Pirate Radio. The results is three sets of moving goal-posts which can only be nailed down with generalisations.

What I wondered - as I explained in the Spiked! piece - is how so many well-intentioned people had fallen down an intellectual rabbit hole and decided to "fight copyright", rather than reform it with the creators foremost? That seems a bit more punk to me. Instead we've had lots of excuses about why paying people for stuff is evil, and even arguments why there's no such thing as creativity.

Matt disagreed with the view that power was being concentrated as a result of digital networks, and said the indies were doing well in the US - but his impression of their market share was about 3x or 4x larger than it is in reality.

We both agreed on a potential "fix" - which is bringing unlicensed flows of music into a legal framework where people pay for stuff. He said he thought there should be a free market in collection societies. I said if that happened, music companies would simply license all they needed from a dodgy Latvian collection society which - oops! - didn't pay out royalties to the artists.

Matt Mason Pirate's Dilemma

Collection societies strike me as a pretty remarkable achievement. Essentially, these non-profits undertake collective bargaining on behalf of labour. They have survived the invention of electricity, the Reagan and Thatcher eras, but may not survive the EU, which wants to break up their monopoly negotiating power. For me this was another case where a classic labour issue had been abandoned by Guardian readers and other pwogs.

Surprisingly it was Matt who was at the receiving end of the most pointed questions.

One member of the audience had achieved modest success in Asia in a band but found there were hardly any record sales to go with it. He challenged the notion that simply because P2P was popular, it should be legalized. Knife crime was popular too - but that was still theft. Did he want that to be legalized, to?

Matt objected to the comparison, but sidestepped the question. One solution was to adopt his own business strategy, and "play live".

"We're not really a live band," was the reply.

That argument had also been advanced for authors. Personally, I don't think the book is under any threat from electronic media, because paper remains such a good technology. But maybe authors like Martin Amis could "play live" and give their books away for free too, a questioner asked?

Well that's JD Salinger and Thomas Pynchon stuffed, then. Dance for Mr Burns, you performing monkeys!

(This questioner turned out to come from Matt's publisher, by the way.)

I probably should have mentioned, but didn't, that when you have a consultancy business aimed at brand advertisers then the books you write to plug the business will tend to be promotional material - that gives the ad agency and brand people what they want to hear. But, er... I didn't.

Apart from that, there was really only one outbreak of the self-delusions that you get with "Freetardism". One member of the audience said she downloaded stuff but it didn't mean the record companies lost any money. Eh? There is a discovery element to P2P - so did she mean was she spending more or less overall on recordings then? Less, she said. So that's less money going into the sound recording business, then. If the money that would have gone on a CD or iTunes purchase has gone on a video game, or a night down the pub, then that's money spent elsewhere - but she insisted otherwise. Must be a quantum thing. You get some very clever people at the ICA.

I did blank one question, because I couldn't think of anything clever or insightful to say. James Harkin quoted a porn producer who had predicted that half of the professionals in the industry would be out of work in a year. Were there any lessons to be drawn there?

What I should have said is that when there's a 'crisis' in the media - and when there isn't - someone will write a book. This one could be called The Wanker's Dilemma.

Thanks to everyone who came. ®