Pirates have always operated on the fringes of society, eliciting both fear and fascination. They were a small band of mercenaries who’d cut their ties with the law, and were willing to do anything. And it could never be otherwise, could it? We couldn’t possibly imagine a largely pacified society where a large portion of citizens could indeed be called pirates? But, oddly enough, this is exactly what’s been happening for close to twenty years now, from the time the first music files showed up in MP3 format on Napster back in 1993, and on through the very gradual creation of legal services and catalogues that set the terms and obligations for all parties concerned. “We’re all pirates!” This simple statement reveals all of the system’s weaknesses.
Of course, from its very inception, the Web has been synonymous with sharing and openness and a certain revolt against restrictions. Much in the same spirit as back in the 1970s, long before the Internet was born, when young anti-institutional technophiles invented phreaking (a contraction of freak, free and phone) whose goal was as much to be able to call for free as to show off their perfect knowledge of carriers’ telephone systems. A movement that has carried on through to this day, moving into new areas, apace with online innovation, a balancing act of prowess and delinquency. True pirates, those who want to get rich quick on the wrong side of the law, and who are rarely caught, existed before and still exist today.
So what’s changed? A newfound degree of maturity for the Web whose ever shifting nature remains unchanged, but where a sizeable portion of illicit practices have now been relegated to the ranks of fads of the past. The fact that, in both the digital and the real world, there are laws and best practices, rights and duties, is the very least that we’d expect. But achieving this balance was a long and difficult struggle between opposing forces, fighting to have people respect copyright and for the other side to allow fair use. After users and ISPs had got their hands on content, regulators started to listen to broadcasters and copyright holders and, starting in 2010, many of them began introducing a set of regulations ranging from warning to prosecution. New Zealand was a pioneer here, introducing legislation back in 2008, followed by Ireland, Sweden and Taiwan in early 2009, and later South Korea, France, the UK, Belgium and many others.
The main advantage of these new “Hadopi” laws was undoubtedly their ability to trigger often lively debate between the various sides. In the meantime, we witnessed an endless cycle of authorities trying to catch up to Internet users who were never short of solutions for getting around any regulatory measures they imposed. Users began turning away from peer-to-peer sites like BitTorrent and eDonkey, which were the first to be targeted by the new laws, and migrated to sites offering real time streaming, making a global smash hit of the once obscure Hong Kong-based site, Megavideo. And geeks flocked to dedicated platforms like Usenet and Demoid, while the more underground users opted for destinations like Pando and Waste, micro networks where exchanges are fully secured and invisible to the outside. On the one side we have a majority of users looking for simple solutions like streaming and, on the other, a technically savvy minority who’s always up on the latest solution for masking their IP address (VPN, proxies, etc.) and so preserving their anonymity.
More and more people began to think that we needed to have a clearer and more relaxed economic framework. If the global licence, which is the ultimate embodiment of this need for transparency, still doesn’t exist, similar systems have gradually been taking hold. Users can now subscribe to an offer which, for a set fee, gives them access to a broad array of services which include video, print media, music and literature. And it’s all legal!