Analysing the Political Tactics of the Filesharing Communities

* Article: Sharing music files: Tactics of a challenge to the industry. by Brian Martin, Chris Moore, and Colin Salter.. First Monday, Volume 15, Number 12 – 6 December 2010

Excerpted from the Introduction by Brian Martin et al:

“Here we focus on the methods used by the two sides in the ongoing struggle over music files. We use a framework that is convenient for studying a wide variety of struggles over injustice, such as censorship, job dismissals, sexual harassment, massacres, torture and genocide (Martin, 2007). In these and other areas, powerful perpetrators commonly use many or all of the following methods to inhibit outrage:

* cover up the action;
* devalue the target;
* reinterpret what happened by lying, minimising, blaming and framing;
* use official channels to give an appearance of justice; and,
* intimidate or bribe the people involved.

Consider the example of torture. Governments that sanction torture hide its practice (cover up the action). They label the victims as criminals, traitors or terrorists (devalue the target). If challenged over their treatment of prisoners, governments may reinterpret what happened by claiming that torture techniques were not used (lying), minimising the effects, blaming rogue operators, or saying the interrogation methods were legitimate (framing). Occasionally they hold formal inquiries into allegations of torture, which may whitewash the actions or apply penalties to low–level perpetrators but almost never to policy–makers (official channels). Finally, they may threaten whistleblowers and offer rewards to those who co–operate (intimidation and bribery). All these methods were used in relation to the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib by U.S. guards, revealed in 2004 (Gray and Martin, 2007).

In response to these five types of methods of inhibiting outrage, targets can use five corresponding types of counter–methods:

* expose the action;
* validate the target;
* interpret what happened as an injustice;
* uavoid or discredit official channels; instead, mobilise support; and,
* resist intimidation and bribery.

In the next section, we give an overview of the rationale for the backfire model and its application to file sharing. Then, in the following five sections, we examine the tactics of the struggle under the successive categories of cover–up versus exposure, devaluation versus validation, interpretation struggles, official channels versus mobilisation, and intimidation versus resistance. After this, we comment briefly on strategy at the levels of the user, activists and the file–sharing movement. The conclusion summarises the analysis of tactics and spells out some implications for action by file–sharers.”

The Conclusion:

“The music industry, in attacking file–sharing, runs the risk of causing outrage and triggering even greater opposition. It has available to it five sorts of methods to inhibit outrage over its actions: cover–up; devaluation of file–sharers; reinterpretation; official channels; and, intimidation. In response, file–sharers and advocates of file–sharing have a corresponding set of counter–methods.

To better understand the struggle, it is useful to distinguish strategy for file–sharers at several levels: the user, activists and the movement. At each level, characteristic methods are used.

At the level of the ordinary user, someone who shares files now and then, the main goal is to enjoy the benefits of file–sharing and the main strategy is to avoid reprisals. This means keeping a reasonably low profile, communicating mainly with like–minded people. There is little direct engagement with the industry.

Activists are those taking steps to bring about change beyond their own immediate situation. File–sharing activists might promote distribution of file–sharing software, contribute to public debates, or assist individuals targeted with legal actions. Some of them develop new file–sharing software and set up Web sites. A few become spokespeople for file–sharing. Activists are involved in all the methods of exposure, validation, interpretation, campaigning and resistance, namely countering the main tactics of the industry.

The movement level involves collective action. It includes groups that establish and run major file–sharing operations, develop campaigns and make public stands.

To be more effective at any given level, it is valuable to look up one level, see the wider context and adjust actions accordingly. At the ordinary user level, it is valuable to see what activists do and learn from them. At the activist level, it is valuable to look at the movement level and coordinate with what occurring there. At the movement level, it is valuable to look at other movements and at global trends.

We have analysed the struggle over the p2p sharing of music files in terms of tactics used to minimise or increase outrage. There are two potential sources of outrage grounded in contrasting assessments of unfairness: music industry leaders and their supporters say it is unfair for proprietary material to be distributed for free; file–sharers say that their activities are harmless and that industry attempts to control content are a restraint on musical creativity.

We have used a framework for classifying tactics commonly used by powerful perpetrators to inhibit outrage over their actions, namely cover–up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels and intimidation. We focussed on methods used by the music industry to defend its position and counter–methods used by advocates of file–sharing. The main techniques initially used by the industry were devaluation and reinterpretation. For example, industry leaders labelled file–sharers as pirates or criminals — the technique of devaluation — and said file–sharing was a violation of copyright that harmed artists — the technique of reinterpretation.

However, devaluation and reinterpretation were not enough to deter file–sharing, so industry leaders turned to intimidation, including suing selected individuals. This tactic may have been based on a misjudgement about attitudes to file–sharing: industry leaders may have believed their own rhetoric about file–sharers being criminals. But many users saw file–sharing as an ordinary activity, not harming anyone. This would be analogous to the photocopying of books or sheet music or the tape–recording of television shows, both of which have been illegal in many countries. When laws are widely violated and unenforced, attempts at selective enforcement quickly cause resentment.

Probably the most significant reinterpretation technique used by industry has been to frame the issue as a question of harm to industry, thus obscuring the possibility of a different distribution model. The music industry has not employed cover–up to a great degree. Indeed, it has publicised its legal actions against users. Again, this can be considered a miscalculation based on a false sense of public opinion about the fairness or otherwise of file–sharing. Finally, industry has not used official channels to dampen outrage over its actions, but instead used them — specifically, legal actions — as a method of attack.

In summary, our assessment is that industry has been most effective when using methods of devaluation and reinterpretation. But it has not used cover–up or official channels in ways to reduce outrage, and its use of intimidation has inflamed opinion against it. Legal actions have sometimes succeeded in the short term, but with the longer–term consequence of hurting industry’s reputation, in particular by positioning industry as the perpetrator of injustice.

Supporters of file–sharing have countered industry tactics by exposing tactics adopted, by presenting an alternative interpretation of the effects of file–sharing and by resisting legal threats. Probably the most effective counter–method by the file–sharing community has been exchanging information. Industry has played into the hands of file–sharers by launching major legal actions — Napster and The Pirate Bay are the most prominent examples — that become sources of grievance. It is obvious but worth noting that those who share files are also good at sharing information. If the Napster and The Pirate Bay sagas had been restricted to courtrooms, with no wider coverage, they might have damaged file–sharing activities without negative public consequences for the industry. Instead, they became platforms for ongoing exposure and mobilisation of support. These cases have been counterproductive for industry, and in this sense are analogous to the McLibel trial, in which MacDonald’s sued two activists for defamation and ended up with its reputation severely damaged (Curry Jansen and Martin, 2003).

Another possibility is that the trials have stimulated software developers, sympathetic to file–sharing, to find ways to get around legal constraints. In the long run, this is also counterproductive for industry [9].

This analysis of tactics offers some ideas for file–sharers to become more effective in their reaction to prosecution by the industry. One possibility is encouraging well–respected individuals, from various walks of life, to speak openly in support of file–sharing. This would help counter industry’s ongoing efforts at devaluation. Another possibility is giving more attention to alternative models for music distribution, in other words framing the issue in non–industry terms. In terms of court cases, the implication of the backfire model is to put lots of effort into campaigning and not let court agendas become dominant. The Pirate Bay trial, like the McLibel trial, provides an interesting example of how to use a court case to increase publicity: awareness of the issues increased even though the defendants were convicted. Finally, resisting intimidation is crucial for file–sharers. For those who are threatened or sued, information and support needs to be readily available about options, both to acquiesce quietly or, for those with the capacity, to resist with the greatest reputation cost to the industry.

Our examination here is preliminary. We have given examples of tactics used on each side of the struggle over file–sharing, but much more could be investigated, including studying other episodes of peer–to–peer challenges to industry. We have pointed to tactics used, but not tried to examine their effectiveness, which requires establishing criteria for effectiveness and gathering relevant evidence, something likely to be much more difficult than simply finding evidence of tactics used. Note however that even the gathering of evidence about tactics can be challenging, because cover–up and intimidation are themselves often hidden.

There are bound to be further stages in the struggle over sharing of music files. For those who want to think strategically, it is useful to think through a range of options in terms of the counter–methods of exposure, validation, interpretation, mobilisation and resistance.”

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