Bootlegged Democracy

boot legging

The term “bootlegging” was first coined by Americans during the Probihition period as a slang for smuggling.

boot leggingAlcohol was often kept in flasks and hidden on the legs of smugglers, either above or below the boot. Whisky with the added flavour of foot. Today, the term is used more widely to describe people who distribute intellectual property illegally, such as movies, music, etc. Personally I prefer the term “professional capitalist” or “robin hood”. “Superman” cuts it too. After all, it was my economics lecturer that taught me the basis of business: as a consumer, we are most likely to choose the businesses that provide quality services at the best price.

In fact, in economic literature, bootlegging is not quite as disreputable as it is commonly seen in language. Professor K. Knight first applied the term in economic theory in 1967. Defined as research in which motivated individuals secretly organise the innovation process, courtesy of Wikipedia, bootlegging sounds almost reputable.

Of course, it would certainly be appropriate to assume that K. Knight was a bootlegger, otherwise why would a professor want to dignify a style of life which today is being proclaimed by governments all over the world as destroying originality and creativity, and compared to stealing a car? Well, I’m guessing the governments in Africa and Israel and Iraq probably have other things on their agenda than “How to stop intellectual property theft”, but in general, intellectual property and bootlegging is a big concern, isn’t it?

Incidentally, I need to digress a little and discuss the advertising that MITA came up with to persuade people to stop buying bootleg DVDs. MITA assumes a moral society, and in a moral society of course the advertisement works. But we live in an amoral society. Would I steal a car? Honestly?

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If it was a Lamborghini Diablo, and the key was left in the car and the door open, there’s a good chance I might hop in for a ride. If it was a Dodge Dart, or a Proton Wira however, I’d pass. Now obviously, this is really more of my own behaviour here, but I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that the ad really doesn’t induce moral righteousness about intellectual property theft in me.

First, intellectual property is much more vague than a Lamborghini Diablo. Second, equating the theft of a car that costs a million bucks to a DVD that might sell for fifty (and absurdly costs pennies to make) seems probably absurd and not quite in the same league. Yes, I know, it’s not the size, it’s the act. Still, it really isn’t the same.

Finally, most people don’t care. After all, it’s not like I’ll be watching The Pianist everyday. Maybe once a year? So why would you want to spend fifty dollars on the original DVD, when you can purchase it for eight dollars, and you don’t suffer from “tiny picture, tinny voices, and shadows from whoever is sitting in front and has to go to the toilet”? If it’s something like a memorable keepsake, like Star Wars, or Ben-Hur, then there’s reason to buy the original, but why else?

(P.S. I’m not advocating bootlegging here. I buy originals, or else I just watch my friends’ DVDs. And I don’t ask their origins. I’m just suggesting that the MDA really needs to improve on their advertising methods.)

Digression aside, the interesting thing about Knight’s description of bootlegging is that while it is not authorised, it is usually for the benefit of the company. While bootlegging of intellectual property as an industry is reportedly stealing millions annually from the companies that own the intellectual property, they are indeed challenging these companies to finally get off their backside and do something instead of following the old economic theory of supply and demand: I’m the only one who can supply, so you have to meet my demand.

Capitalism is forcing them to come up with better methods of selling their products. However, that’s not the most scary thing. What is amazing and rather impressive is how fast the bootlegging industry is catching up with them by innovating even faster. Today, you can buy a bootleg DVD of a movie, at true DVD quality, complete with accurate subtitling, bonus features and all, online, at a fraction of the price of the original, and pay for it with your credit card if you wish.

Convenience of Amazon without the cost of shipping. Two years ago, if you had told me this was possible, I probably would have laughed in your face. The scariest thing is, it’s not just movies or music that you can purchase. Even designer labels have not been spared. In parts of Bangkok, you can find exact duplicates of any designer label that you want. Bags, shoes, even clothes. Frank Muller identicals with power reserve for $500 to $1000. If you aren’t a big watch person, then you can go ask any dealer how much power reserve costs. Trust me, it doesn’t come cheap.

But aside from breaking the economy, bootlegging stands for something important: democracy, and what is likely the fastest way of distributing information to the public. Before the advent of the cassette tape, you had to write stuff down in order to keep a copy of it for distribution. Sure, there was the radio, but what about the poor people who lived in the country and didn’t have a transistor? The tape allowed people to record information and copy it easily, so more and more could hear it over and over again. Although considering the times we’re talking about, it was probably Sunday sermons and public speeches rather than the live music of Iggy Pop.

The cassette tape brought about the beginning of the bootlegging industry, at least for the entertainment industry. You could listen to Winston Churchill or F.D.R. over and over again, and if someone wanted to hear it too, you dubbed a copy for them. In this sense, the cassette tape was probably the proverbial straw that broke the communist camel’s back. Without a control over the spread of propaganda, a government-centered style of leadership was bound to fall apart by public dissension. It is rather sad to know that this tool of democracy is today cursed by the thousands of corporations that couldn’t have been established if bootlegging had not been present.

So how are legitimate companies coming along in their fight to eliminate the competition? We’ve all seen, or at least heard of RCA’s (Radio Corporation of America) attempts to bring to the courts companies that own software which allows sharing of intellectual property such as music. Yet, despite all its maneuvers to control the ripping of music, there is no stopping the file-sharing industry.

Even Apple’s iTune’s limits to prevent the transfer of files from and to more than one computer has met with hacks that have more than overcome this control. Which, incidentally voids its warranty, but in the grand scheme of file sharing, is a small thing. Digital right management has become the public enemy, the Osama of the computer industry. Partly because of its rigidity on control, but also because it is present at all. The computer, our cassette recorder of today, is no longer welcome.

What’s interesting is that when we used to have cassette tape recorders, no one forbid us from doing exactly the same thing. Today, it’s a f@%#king big deal. What’s the difference from copying a song on a cassette from the radio, and then lending it to a friend, and copying a song from an CD, and lending it to another person? Aside from the ease of method today, and that you probably don’t know who you’re lending it to, but why should the charges apply?

We’ll never be free of the underground network, for which I’m rather thankful. The only thing you can reasonably hope to do is hunker down, wait, and keep the DVDs in your shoes and hope no policeman frisks you.