Piracy and Graffiti: Benefits

I wrote this research paper for a writing class (which I later found out I didn’t actually have to take, thanks Stony Brook), and it was published on digication. It seems my profile was deleted either from no longer being in the class or simply disuse. I feel this should be shared with the world rather than hunkering in my computer files, so here is my (thoroughly researched) reason why graffiti and piracy are not only similar, but not such a bad thing for society.


The Benefits of Piracy and Graffiti
by Jen Novotny

Piracy and graffiti are two terms that rarely (if ever) show up together in the same sentence, or even the same paper. However, through a small epiphany and extensive research, I have discovered that the two actually share many properties, aside from their illegality, that go unnoticed. These similarities include how they are executed, how they are punished, and what benefits stem from them. This last in particular is often overlooked by the general public. I find that many of the laws pertaining to both activities are outdated. By comparing the two, these flaws can be better highlighted to show that in order for society to fully benefit from piracy and graffiti, changes must be made to the current laws governing these practices.

First, I think it is important to explain exactly what is meant by the terms “piracy” and “graffiti.” The best definition I have found of piracy does not come from Merriam-Webster. It comes from the book The Pirates Dilemma: How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism by Matt Mason. One of the first things Mason attempts to do is explain what a pirate is, and in his words: “A pirate is essentially anyone who broadcasts or copies someone else’s creative property without paying for it or obtaining permission” (36). This is fairly straightforward. Often in the media piracy is equated with theft. However, as Darryl Woolley notes in his article “The Cynical Pirate: How Cynicism Affects Music Piracy”, “digital music piracy differs from traditional theft in that the cost is an opportunity cost of lost sales rather than a physical loss” (32). This means that the often outrageous sums of money reportedly lost by the music industry (as well as other industries “afflicted” by piracy) are not necessarily what would have been earned by the business. Also, as Emmitt Stinson notes in his article “The Pirate Code”, “an illegal download doesn’t necessarily correspond to a lost sale” (64) as many industry representatives would like everyone to believe. For now, it suffices to say that I will be looking at piracy as a “socially accepted illegal practice” (Woolley 32) that involves using intellectual property for which the copyright is owned by another entity that is not receiving compensation for such use.

“Graffiti” is another term which relies heavily on connotation and context. Often it is used interchangeably with the phrase “street art” and refers to painting, drawing, or otherwise marking a publicly visible surface with a mural, tag, or other form of artwork. This is an incredibly broad definition, but it has to be. As with piracy, this is a “socially accepted illegal practice,” and the main contradiction arises from the fact that “the painting of an image in public space can have aesthetic value whilst also constituting a criminal offence” (Edwards 347). Most people think of graffiti as the block letters spelling out unintelligible names in bright colors on the side of a building in a derelict neighborhood. However, this is a gross underestimation of this art form. Graffiti also includes legitimate artwork such as street artist Banksy’s intricate London murals, like the naked man hanging from a window on the side of a building visible from Park Street in Central Bristol, which received overwhelming public support and thus remains on the wall. For the purposes of this paper, I will set aside the idea proposed by some that graffiti is merely an “urban visual blight” (Mason 125); I will use it in the context as a legitimate, if somewhat illegal, art form.

As stated in the introduction, piracy and graffiti are not often tied together. Yet, I have found several parallels between the two. As mentioned when describing the definitions of the terms, both are “socially accepted illegal practices.” Although the activities vary in their mode of rebellion, both are advocating their anticorporate ideas. Graffiti is specifically targeting the prevalence of advertisements in every facet of daily life. As Mason says, we have “become inundated by a daily onslaught of ads, and street artists are taking notice” (126). Piracy is also rebelling against corporations, but pirates do this to protest practices of the corporations as a whole rather than the advertisement output of those corporations. Pirates operate outside of the accepted market and “highlight areas where choice doesn’t exist and demand that it does” (Mason 46). In many cases, both activities are viewed as theft. Graffiti is the theft of space. This is a very tenuous argument at best, but it is often used to support other anti-graffiti rhetoric and often captured graffiti artists are prosecuted under criminal damage charges. This assumes that they have permanently lowered the use or value of the property; at least, that is how “damage” is defined by the courts. Piracy is the practice more commonly viewed as stealing. It is the theft of intellectual property. However, this argument is also tenuous because, although the pirates are using the copyrighted material without permission, they are not permanently marring the goods in any way, and they rarely claim the works as their own save in the special case of remixes.

A particularly interesting similarity is present in the participants of these activities. Graffiti artists and pirates are often just common people who sometimes do not even contemplate how they are aiding the rebellion against corporate domination. Graffiti legends such as TAKI 183 are merely teenagers wandering around the city with a Sharpie in their pocket. TAKI 183 was a 17-year-old who gained notoriety by tagging a secret service car in the middle of a parade in 1971; due to his part-time job as a messenger, he was able to tag places all over New York City with a marker. He gained notoriety because The New York Times and other media recognized the tag and wrote articles about it many times. This of course led to copycat acts. Several studies have found that the majority of pirates are between the ages of 18 and 34. This reflects the origination of pirate thinking as a Youth Culture phenomenon. Graffiti also falls in this category. As TAKI 183 told The New York Times in 2000, “That’s something you do when you’re sixteen. It’s not something you make a career out of” (quoted by Mason 108). It is true graffiti should not really be considered as a career choice, and the same can be said for piracy. That said, as a rebellious youth (or even a rebellious elder), both mediums provide a way to heckle corporations in an attempt to replace inefficient systems (Mason 67).

Although these activities appear to spring from youth culture, there is sufficient evidence that people have been doing both of these things for centuries. Graffiti is somewhat more ancient than piracy, at least so far as the technological term is used today. According to the Dictionary of Art, the word comes from the Greek for “to write” and originally referred to markings found on Roman architecture. Other graffiti artists in history include the Mayans, Vikings, and Egyptians. Mason humorously noted that “leaving our mark in public is an urge that people from all walks of life have been unable to resist. We need graffiti like dogs need lampposts” (111). Piracy also extends far into the past. In fact, “trace the origins of….almost any industry where intellectual property is involved, and you will invariably find pirates at its beginning” (Mason 36). This includes America itself. During the Industrial Revolution, Americans were bootlegging ideas from Europe to stay on par with the competition. The word “Yankee” is actually said to derive from the Dutch word “janke” which was slang for “pirate” (Mason 36), however, it is worth mentioning that this fun fact may be wrong as the Oxford English Dictionary states that the official origin is unascertained. Still, the point remains that America has a long history of piracy, as does much of the rest of the world.

Government officials often choose a cause to fight in order to establish their political platform and gain public approval. In his article on moral panics, Ronald Kramer uses the example of graffiti to describe the “over-reaction” of public officials. He notes that although some citizens view graffiti as a problem “there is reason to suspect that whatever consensus does exist is, at least in part, a creation of city leaders and the agencies they oversee” (301). Kramer specifically references the New York City mayors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg; both administrations relied heavily on anti-graffiti rhetoric and pushed for many strict measures against graffiti and graffiti artists. Piracy is another cause which many politicians rally around. Media corporations are more likely to support a candidate who pushes for their interests in anti-piracy legislation. Mason comments on this in his book when he mentions that copyright laws have “expanded dramatically” in defense against increased piracy and because corporations are gaining more influence when it comes to political decisions. He goes on to say that “copyright laws, like patent laws, are becoming so overbearing they now stifle the creative processes they were initially designed to protect” (98). Many proponents of both graffiti and piracy agree that these activities should be regulated. However, there is a difference between regulation and loss of freedom.

Some graffiti artists are quite literally losing their freedom. In Britain in particular, most offenders are prosecuted under the Criminal Damage Act of 1971 (Edwards 345) and punishments for those found guilty are becoming increasingly severe. Often it can result in jail time. Piracy has also experienced an increase in severity of repercussions. Although pirates rarely face a threat of prison, massive fines are often levied by the suing corporations. These fines far outweigh the actual potential loss the company faces based on the pirated material. A person using 30 seconds of a 99¢ song may be fined hundreds of dollars under the current system. Many pirates and graffiti artists alike agree that the punishment does not fit the crime.

Now that the parallels between piracy and graffiti are sufficiently laid out, I would like to turn to the second part of my research which entails explaining how these practices are actually beneficial to society and what needs to change in order to achieve the full benefit. Anti-graffiti and anti-piracy rhetoric are overly prolific in today’s society. This makes sense as both actions are illegal, and in general society condemns illegal actions. However, what does not make sense is that, as stated previously, these practices are actually socially acceptable. Many people, in particular young people, such as college students “do not seem to regard piracy as unethical” (Woolley 31). A multitude of ads condemning piracy are produced by corporations and their affiliates, yet the attitude of society itself is more accepting of piracy, and it is society which is actively participating in piracy. The same applies to graffiti. Aside from the social acceptability of piracy and graffiti, there are important benefits to both actions.

The primary benefits of piracy, as well as graffiti, are that both force businesses and individuals to take different approaches. They encourage innovation. Pirates and graffiti artists are merely new types of entrepreneurs operating outside of the usual market. They “create new spaces where different ideas and methods run the show” (Mason 46). Pirates force businesses to have more ingenuity and flexibility in how they deliver products.  Piracy leads to increased competition, and competition is the life of a Capitalistic society. Many corporations are responding to piracy by suing customers for illegal use, and getting laws adapted to favor the corporations. However, “a company’s or individual’s ability to make money should be based on their ability to innovate and create value,” (Mason 59) not on how well they can present a case of piracy in a courtroom. Similarly, graffiti forces companies to reconsider their marketing approach. The world today is so filled with advertisements that people have begun to simply block them out. Graffiti artists’ resentment of advertisings encroachment on public space has led to increasingly innovative artwork, especially pieces which are actually intended to “blend in with the scenery” (Mason 120). For instance, Ji Lee, a Korean man raised in Brazil, went to New York to study design and fine art; after becoming increasingly agitated at the overabundance of corporate messages, he printed out a number of speech bubbles and posted them on advertisements throughout the city. Citizens were able to write in their own political, social, or just plain funny sayings. This was intended as a covert retaliation against the mindless ads people are bombarded with daily.

As graffiti artists continue to find inventive ways to counter the current advertisement standards, marketers are following suit or at least listening to the complaints, as is the case with the Dove brand which now uses “real women” in their ad campaigns as opposed to stick thin models. Graffiti opens up communication between companies and consumers, and this is leading to a somewhat less cluttered and sequestered world. Graffiti and piracy are having an effect on the business world, forcing corporations to take a second and a third look at their accepted business models. Although some will always argue against piracy and graffiti merely because they are illegal, as Mason points out, “One man’s copyright terrorist is another’s creative freedom fighter: many forms of piracy transform society for the better” (36).

One of the most important similarities and benefits of graffiti and piracy is the impact they have on societal thought process. Graffiti alone is not enough to condemn ads and the negative effects they can have on consumers. Piracy alone is not enough to convince the record and movie industries to give consumers what they want. Yet, these actions can lead to a public awareness which results in change. As things stand, punishment for graffiti and piracy are too harsh. In fact, the laws themselves are inappropriate for the situation, and they need to be amended to better suit the case. Instead of focusing on destroying the “threat” of piracy, businesses need to embrace the methods pirates employ and figure out how to make it work to the advantage of themselves and society. Public officials should not focus on the “threat” of graffiti, but on the good it can do through its aesthetic value as well as the message delivered to marketing companies. Piracy and graffiti are not the problem. The problem is the approach taken to them and the way they are portrayed in society.

It would be foolish to assume that all pirates and graffiti artists are fighting for the good of society and themselves. Many simply want music, books, etc. for free, or they just want their name visible for the masses. However, it is also foolish to assume that the latter group is all that falls into the categories of pirates and graffiti artists. This is exactly what many “upstanding citizens” do, though. Often government officials and media corporations strive to characterize pirates and graffiti artists as shiftless miscreants bent on the destruction of civilized society. Unfortunately, much of society will buy into this propaganda. Still, pirates and graffiti artists will continue to rip music and tag walls, because there is something wrong with society. Even if they as individuals cannot fix it, they can alert the general public to problems through their unorthodox methods. Perhaps Mason put it best when he said, “Piracy has gone on throughout history, and we should encourage it. It’s how inefficient systems are replaced” (67). Ours is indeed an inefficient system, and whether pirates and graffiti artists are aware that what they do constitutes rebellion for change, they are just the rebels needed to replace it.

Works Cited

Edwards, Ian. “Banksy’s Graffiti: A Not-so-simple Case of Criminal Damage?” Journal of Criminal Law 73.4 (Aug2009): 345-361. Web.

Kalerante, Evaggelia and Pelagia Mormori. “Graffiti as a form of Social and Cultural Conflict.” International Journal of Humanities 3.4 (Dec2005): 129-132. Web.

Kramer, Ronald. “Moral Panics and Urban Growth Machines: Official Reactions to Graffiti in New York City, 1990-2005.” Qualitative Sociology 33.3 (Sept2010): 297-311. Web.

Mason, Matt. The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism. New York, NY: Free Press, 2008. Print.

Phillips, Susan A. “Graffiti Definition.” The Dictionary of Art. Macmillan Publishers- Grove’s Dictionaries, Inc. 1996. Web. 2 Nov. 2010.

Stinson, Emmitt. “The Pirate Code.” 63-70. 2010. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 26 Oct. 2010.

Woolley, Darryl J. “The Cynical Pirate: How Cynicism Effects Music Piracy.” Academy of Information and Management Sciences Journal 13.1 (2010): 31-43. Web.


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