Jamie King, director of steal This Film I and II on piracy, the little guy and "the future"
Jamie King is like you—he raises a fearless finger to record companies and movie studios, and goes on ahead with his file sharing activities. He’s a writer, activist, and with the Steal This Film movies, a filmmaker. Along with his contemporaries in the League of Noble Peers (LoNP), he’s fighting to usher in a new era of content creation and sharing. (If you haven’t watched Steal This Film II on our February 2008 DVD, do so now)
Digit: What inspired you to make Steal This Film?
Jamie King: We knew that we had the opportunity to do something amazing with P2P distribution. And we’d been looking for a project to do it with for some time. We’d had discussions about fiction features and about all sorts of other things—but when the raid on The Pirate Bay happened we knew that this was the right topic for a documentary.
D: “We”, we presume, is the League of Noble Peers? How’d that start?
JK: The League of Noble Peers didn’t really start. Rather, it was a new name for something that had been going on for a long time already. We needed a new name partly because we were convinced that we’d be sued after STF I, and partly because this was the first project we produced with this exact configuration of people. LoNP is also meant to be something that anyone can be part of—you don’t have to ask our permission. Already we had a couple of people using the name to do quite big projects.
If you want to know about the etymology of the name, of course it’s a pun on Peers. Peers in the UK are Lords, and Lords are supposed to be Noble (they might be noble for all I know, but I only met one, and he was shouting at me). So the idea is that there’s a kind of nobility in P2P, and we try to convey this by being principled, in our own way, in our work (though we do well understand that our idea of “principled” and “noble” might be very different from an Intellectual Property (IP) lawyer’s).
D: So when is file sharing noble, and when does it violate your principles?
JK: I don’t think we ever wrote the principles down or even spoke about them, so it would be difficult to say. I suppose the fact that technology is fundamentally unprincipled is one of the key things we are trying to get across. You can’t really argue with the material consequences of digitality and the network form. The nearest I could get to a straight answer would be to say, poisoning networks with fake copies is pretty much a violation of our principles. But then, on other occasions, fakes are fun.
D: So in the world that Steal this Film wants to see, what happens to the big media companies? Do they exist? How do they make money?
JK: How they will make money doesn’t really concern us as League of Noble Peers. Starting a conversation about an historical change in human communications with ‘how will the big businesses make money?’ is silly. In a way, it can be more interesting to ask, “how will the little guy survive?”
D: But it’s these companies that fund the content in a lot of cases, right? Giving money to “realise the vision”?
JK: That’s (been) true, but it doesn’t follow that big media companies are the only way to make nice media. The cost of production equipment is falling dramatically. The cost of post-production equipment is falling just as much. Digital file formats mean that it is possible to shoot and edit very cheaply and, with cameras like the Red One, at the quality of major studios. In effect, the only question a creator has to ask themselves today is if they have a good idea, a good script, good actors, a good editor, and the drive to finish a project. In any case, those kinds of people—who are really the future—know very well that big business has nothing to do with them.
D: Have you recovered your investment in Steal This Film I and II? How far have you made it there?
JK: It depends how you define “recovered our investment”. We don’t see an investment purely as a financial business, nor ‘recovery’ the same way you might ‘recover’ a debt from a miscreant borrower. I think we have recouped our investment—financial and otherwise—many times over in terms of the contribution we’ve been able to make to culture. And it constantly upsets me the way that artists are conditioned to think of their work in purely financial terms.
D: Tell us about your alternative compensation system—DISPS.
JK: The new name for DISPS (Distributed Supportive Payment System) is VODO—for VOluntary DOnations. We ditched “payment” for “donations” as payment has the wrong resonance; in the struggle to find an acronym we warped the concept a bit.
One of the things we learned from the thousands of people who donated to STF I and 2 is that, for any given project, there are going to be some passionate supporters who want to make voluntary donations, often well in excess of what they’d have to pay in the traditional mode. So we decided to hatch a project that would make it really, really easy for people to donate to others when they want to. In effect, VODO sees the P2P distribution chain as the natural home for media and therefore the right place for artists to let their work into the world, and it tries to create an infrastructure through which they can be supported on the back of their work. I can’t say a great deal about how VODO works in detail, as we’re prototyping it at the moment, but I can tell you that it’s not a Web portal. And we’re looking for collaborators—especially people with expertise in digital fingerprinting who are prepared to work under the GPL.
D: Will it integrate into our P2P programs?
JK: Yes. And we’re actively working with some massive BitTorrent trackers and indexes and discussing with others. You can guess names but I have no official announcements at the moment. It will integrate across the P2P chain, right down to the player. Under VODO, you don’t pay to watch works—the work connects you to a creator, to whom you donate. The work becomes (as it is) a mediator between one person and another—whereas under proprietrary media the work (as it were) grows legs and often walks away from the creator!
D: It’s a bit idealistic—counting on the goodness of others—isn’t it?
JK: It’s a bit unrealistic to count on being able to reverse a technology. I can’t say too much, but VODO actually makes it pretty sensible for you to donate to artists. And since everyone is an artist now, everyone produces and copies, it’s obvious that we are going to become more sensible in our creative ecosystem. Mutual support won’t look so ‘idealistic’ when many people have become small creators, but we do get that some people have trouble seeing around the corner.
D: One of the solutions proposed for the ‘p2p problem’ is to introduce a “piracy tax” in an ISP’s fees that compensates for any losses caused by file sharing. Your views?
JK: I think I can safely say that the League of Noble Peers are, while broadly friendly with the people who are behind this, against the so-called ‘content flat rate’, and we share this position with our friends at PiratByran. There are a couple of good reasons: the main one is that we shouldn’t necessarily have to pay creators who have already received more than enough ‘compensation’. I should be able to give what I like to who I like, regardless if their material happens to be on a disk of mine or not. Disks are cheap—almost worthless. Bandwidth is cheap. Downloading—moving content from one place to another—is an everyday, mundane act. To connect it to creativity, to the question of value, to the survival of culture, is ridiculous. More and more, the question of what is on your 100 TB thumbdrive is going to be unanswerable—”Uh, I think... all of EMI’s back catalogue... and Hollywood movies from the last 60 years?” (and you’d still have 20 TB left over). So what, you’re going to pay a tax for each copy present on this disk? We don’t think so. We think this is just a temporary band-aid for the big content industries. As such, it’s not terribly important, it won’t work for long, and we can look round the corner to the future that will scare the others. The worst that could be said about it is, it keeps people thinking that there is some way that there could be a ‘return to normalcy’ in media. There cannot and will not be.
Since everyone is an artist now, it’s obvious that we’re going
to become more sensible in our creative ecosystem
D: Have you been to India?
JK: Yes, three times. Big fan. We think India is the future. I think we’re not alone.
D: How do you see your vision taking shape here?
JK: It’s more like we look to Asia to find inspiration. Two of the LoNP were telling me: one of our favourite BitTorrent trackers (I think I can’t name it as it’s private) is a place for sharing rare movies. Anyway, some of the LoNP often get movies from there and then screen them in their Pirate Cinema, and at that Pirate Cinema you can also download the movies from a local drive and take them away (e.g., burn them). So then, a visitor from India had taken away a whole bunch (around 500 titles) and he had shared them with the local markets for copied films—who had transcoded the MPEG4s to MPEG2 (DVD), downloaded the art, and re-created quite high quality DVDs of the films and were selling them with literature in Bangalore for around $ 0.70—so that suddenly, the street market in Bangalore becomes a distribution mechanism for art cinema, Godard, Marker, etc., And films that ‘big business’ doesn’t care about, which could never be seen by Indian people in general, are available in a street market.
No one had realised this had happened. It was only when the LoNP saw them they realised—these had travelled all the way through these various circuits to end up here. That seems like the “future” to us.
Me: Anything you’d like to say to our readers?
JK: Yes, I want to re-iterate that anyone with a penchant for digital fingerprinting wanting to get involved with VODO should get in touch with me. And also, you can stop buying paper now, it’s all over.
You can contact the League of Noble Peers at firstname.lastname@example.org