Saturday, 10 September 2016

Exploiting R2-D2

A big subject amongst creative people in the digital age is the subject of piracy and, more specifically, of stealing in general. Barely a day goes past without some example of artistic theft being brought to public attention whether this be someone lifting songs from a Soundcloud account and then blatantly passing them off as their own, photographs being used or modified in an uncredited way or people being asked to use their creative gifts for free. It can rightly be said, with little hyperbole, that the creative impulses of human beings are constantly and consistently being exploited by other people for their own gain and sometimes for their monetary profit. Indeed, so insidious and constant is this tendency these days that it has become thoroughly normalized. People see artistic work as something of little worth that can be had for free. Its often pointed out that artists suffer because of this due to their inability to support themselves from creative lifestyles. Its logically possible to take the view that every act of theft or expectation of something for free contributes to this mentality regardless of how trivial or inconsequential you may regard any individual example as being. I should point out, before I carry on, that I don't have clean hands here. I live in exactly the society I've described and am prey to the same dubious impulses. So today's blog is not holier than thou. I'm just as guilty as the next person. I've also been the victim of theft. On Soundcloud my entire set of music, over 60 tracks, was stolen and put up elsewhere for money in 2010. Last year I became aware that a Russian account was routinely downloading my Bandcamp tracks and making them available on a Russian website. This is routine and normal for many.

The reason I discuss all this is because last night whilst idling through my Twitter timeline I came across someone advertising a T shirt he had made. As I sometimes but certainly not always do (I expect like everyone else), I went to have a look at the product he was selling. It was a T shirt with the image of R2-D2 from Star Wars on it. R2-D2 had been coloured in. It wasn't a bad T shirt. I can imagine that some people would want to buy it. But the question that came into my head immediately and, I admit, not at first totally seriously was "Has this image been licensed from George Lucas/Disney?" Now, of course, R2-D2 is not this guy's artistic creation. Its someone else's and certainly held by some body or entity as their's to artistically license and exploit for profit as they see fit. Of course, neither this person nor the online record label he is attached to and selling this product through had even so much as broached this question in the process of their activities. The impression I got from their responses was that there was seemingly no problem here. The artist concerned gave me the argument that Lucas and Disney were rich enough (so this somehow makes it OK) and the online record label sent back a sarcastic picture apparently intimating I was getting my panties in a bunch over nothing. So, according to these two, both of whom are seemingly reluctant to even acknowledge that this is fairly obvious stealing, there's no problem here. Stealing someone else's design is fine. You don't even need to question yourself over what you are doing.

Now, as I said last night to the person concerned, this isn't my fight. It is, in the parlance of our times, no skin off my nose. George Lucas and Disney are both indeed staggeringly rich. I don't really care more than those involved here if they lose a few dollars they might have otherwise gotten if this had been done properly. And its also true that I'm no one's moral police. As I stated above, when I started this conversation I wasn't even doing so totally seriously. I suppose I raised the issue to find out the response. It was a heuristic question to attempt to find out the attitude at work here. The artist selling the T shirt gave the reply that the creators/owners of the property were rich enough already and the record label said they would stop if Lucas or Disney complained. Neither answer is good enough and anyone reading this as well as those concerned knows it. But apparently its difficult for some to admit this even with their hands in the till and their pants pulled down on camera for all to see. As I said at the start, such activity has become ingrained and normalized. The idea "I want to use something so I just will" is there in the midst of us and its not going away anytime soon. 

However, its not always universal. I'm aware of another artistic person on my Twitter timeline who recently wanted to use some music from the artist Moby. As I understand it he wanted to do some work on a set of ambient music he had put online, I think for free ironically enough, and then put it out on his own account. It transpired that this musician had gone so far as to contact Moby or his management directly to see if he was allowed and able to do this. I admit that, when I learned about this, I flinched inwardly a little. If Moby had dumped this online for free then why ask at all? Surely it could be taken as read it was OK to use the material? By highlighting the issue with those concerned it could only really go badly if they said no, right? And, besides, Moby would likely never find out anyway. My artist friend is not the most popular musician in the world, as he himself would admit, albeit he should probably be more popular than he is. If he went and did whatever he wanted with Moby's music the chances of Moby finding out in the vast jungle of the Internet is extremely negligible. I expect this latter belief is at the heart of what the person with the R2-D2 T shirt and his record label think too. They don't expect those who really own the image will find out. No harm, no foul, right?

So why did this become such as issue for me that I wrote a blog about it? I can't really say but I think its the exploitation at the heart of the issue that tweaks my moral nipples so that I can't ignore it. What I've discussed here is blatant stealing however those at the heart of the matter want to avoid, belittle or ignore the fact. They are both in the wrong and guilty of artistic theft and exploitation. So Lucas and Disney, or whoever actually owns the image if R2-D2, are probably mega-rich and its doubtful they will miss the few dollars they might have made. But that's not the issue. I'm certainly not raising this out of concern for their bank balance. I'm raising this as a way of asking if stealing is OK now. What do you think? Is stealing OK? Does it matter? Are there consequences from the idea that I can decide for myself on a case by case basis if I should be allowed to steal? The conventional attitude is certainly "No harm, no foul". But, like many conventions, is that valid? What are the ramifications for people just deciding for themselves whether they should steal or not? Is it OK in society if we just become laws unto ourselves? Sure, this is hardly the crime of the century but, as one supermarket chain here is fond of saying, "every little helps". Every little supposedly inconsequential act goes onto the fire and helps it burn that little bit brighter. It all contributes to the mentality "Stuff is free if I want it to be". I have asked the record label concerned if its OK if I download and sell their entire music catalog as my own now. I don't expect it is but that's exactly what hypocrisy is. As I reported above, apparently the problem with hypocrisy is that I'm in the wrong for getting my panties in a bunch about it.

Now this T shirt issue would still be wrong if they gave the T shirt away for free. But at least then those concerned wouldn't be openly seeking to profit from the skill, work and ideas of others. Currently, they are. That's their choice and their problem if, by some miracle, things ever went tits up. What I refuse to accept, however, is that it doesn't matter. Its not "a bit of fun" as the record label wrote back to me. Getting money for nothing surely might be fun for them but all it does for the rest of us, in its own tiny, barely measurable way, is corrupts public morality. Maybe that doesn't matter either.

But isn't that merely the thin end of a particularly nihilistic wedge?

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