Is Online Piracy an Art Form?
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, also the defining aesthetic of our times, probably.
At the midpoint between appreciation and imitation lies piracy. An old term for maritime robbery, it has popularly come to describe digital files that are stolen, reappropriated and given out for free. The act is far-reaching, but unmistakable. It’s in the shape of a bulky zip file of Adobe Photoshop; it’s flesh-eating low quality audio, ripped from a CD and onto music forums; It’s Metallica in 2000, testifying before Senate about their entire catalogue being distributed on an illegal platform called Napster.
For ordinary people, the words ‘free download’ added to a Google search on anything from books to TV shows, can lead to piracy. I found it on a weekday evening, hunting for the 2007 crime thriller Zodiac. I was greeted by broken links, spammers and infringement warnings from all my trusted sites. But on Youtube, where the odds were lowest, I ran into something else: a full-length, high quality copy of the movie framed inside a stock image of a Samsung Smart TV, as if playing from the device itself. The video disregarded compositional symmetry – Zodiac played at a severe slanted angle, facing a frozen stock model. The audio was sped-up and lifted to a chipmunk pitch, probably to distract the automated infringement scanners. This is all to say that the movie was reasonably unwatchable. But that’s the ethos of piracy: a promise of substance, but a showcase of dark comedy.
Deep at the heart of pirated media is a slapstick visual language that’s almost as endearing as it is jarring. The virus-heavy websites have a nauseating gaud of pop-ups and 3D dancers, carbonated kitsch in jpegs and mp4s. Making a farce of Al Gore’s internet, however, is not their intention. Pirates jump around the web evading the law, morphing and changing identities. They rack up as many domain names as they abandon. The Pirate Bay, one of the world’s first media piracy portals, holds 19 domains as of 2019. This turbulent process, of moving faster than the sluggish bureaucracy of copyright enforcers, stretches into visual gags in misdirection and costuming: King Crimson’s debut album, a famously offline collection, was repackaged on Youtube as music by the rapper Tekashi69. The entire first act of Hamilton can be found on Pornhub under “Revolutionary Twinks Have Historical Fun.” And the newest addition: a Samsung stock model grinning at the Zodiac Killer terrorizing San Francisco.
Like any costume, there’s a self-referential schism between reverence and trolling. Like the German painter Georg Baselitz, whose vibrant brushwork parodied the Renaissance religious motifs he admired. Or internet artist Brad Troemel, who began using Etsy as his personal white cube. Pirates enjoy the art they consume, but abhor the etiquette that comes with it. Their origin shows us why.
In early computing, before software was a commodity and hacking was criminal, programmers—including university professors, scientists and hobbyists—shared software and media as commonly as sharing recipes. The industry flourished and often spawned unique advances in computing. But looming in the background was Bill Gates, who condemned this practice as the realm of entitled criminals. “Most of you steal your software.” Scorned a young Gates in his 1976 ‘An Open Letter to Hobbyists.’ “Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid? Is this fair?”
His position was popular amongst Silicon Valley elites. They were able to impose intellectual property restrictions that drove hackers to the underground and constructed the underworld of piracy we know of today. Still, what happened to software piracy, has never touched media piracy (movies and television), which is still growing every day. It also happens that this informal industry is vastly untouched by economic plight and most importantly, in the periphery of the West. Stealing American movies is significantly un-policed in the Global South, hints of Anti-Americanism and the cultural and economic dominance of the U.S. play a part in that.
Even with the rise of legal streaming services, piracy is still the norm in developing countries. (Indian piracy sites are visited over 17 billion times a year, the highest in the Global South.) In countries like Brazil, going to the cinema is a privilege held by the middle class. That is why no one was surprised when the popular Brazillian crime drama, Tropa de Elite, reportedly had its master stolen and leaked online. Researchers found that it had been viewed by over 11 million people, months before its release.
Though I’m calling it an informal industry, it's still highly organized, like a home-based jeweler or a meticulous fantasy league. Researcher Joe Karaganis detailed how it all works in Tepito, a neighborhood in Mexico City, where “producers work out of their homes with a few burners, using friends or family as workers.” It’s a cottage industry of counterfeit goods, much like the underground consumer tech in China, which is now colloquially understood as a trick mirror to Western consumerism. The art collective DISNOVATION.ORG pushed the concept further by eulogizing Chinese goods in their collection “Shanzhai Archeology.” In it, the artists displayed an expansive collection of China-sourced mobile phones, splayed on a glass counter with the word SHANZHAI hovered above (Shanzhai or 山寨, is the Chinese term for counterfeit consumer goods). As a thoughtful reexamining of our perceptions of foreign goods, the project easily displayed the endless imagination of counterfeit phones. Some were spotless imitations of Apple and Nokia phones, others were more galaxy brain, like the taser phone, the skeleton phone and the Buddha phone, a golden orb containing playlists of Buddhist chants.
What piracy speculates is infinite possibilities. When the Tropa de Elite leak became a smash hit, pirates immediately made their own sequels constructed out of viral street footage and music videos, and audiences ate it up! Even further, pirates have to create their own posters, artwork and subtitles unavailable to the non-Anglo world. (In Russia, this evolved into a satirical genre called “funny translations.”) The artwork on CD sleeves, distributed on the streets, skillfully handles what audiences want out of their entertainment. The high energy pastiche artwork done on Photoshop – explosions, wall-to-wall celebrities, guns, hair in the wind – demonstrates that international audiences need a bit more convincing than what’s on offer, and they also prefer a bit more fun. It’s an art style that’s most present in the Nigerian film industry known as Nollywood, where the framework of piracy is actually the regular mode of distribution. The 2008 Nollywood feature Beyoncé & Rihanna, that is now a meme across Africa, was incredibly popular and a lot of it had to do with doubling down on all of piracy’s tenets and best features: a joke that doubles as a brag.
When I’m back in East Africa, perusing VCDs off the streets, I marvel at the Photoshop work on the CD sleeves: the colorful figurative interpretations of plot points, the cheeky placement of a famous Nollywood actor who’s definitely not in the film, and the insertion of something of cultural value to me. It’s the faintly psychedelic contours only ever strived for in the loopy, upside down world of piracy–a mastery you wish was present everywhere else.