Tech piracy can fuel innovation, says former pirate radio DJ

Frowned upon by the establishment, reviled by large music companies and hunted down by the police, today’s tech pirates, in a way, have much in common with their seafaring counterparts of old.

However, their dubious reputation notwithstanding, tech pirates are engines of innovation, according to Matt Mason, best selling author, social media marketing expert and ex-pirate radio DJ.

“Thinking like a pirate is [essential],” Mason told ITBusiness.ca shortly after a talk he presented at the Mesh U 2010 Conference in Toronto this week.

“They’re doing what nobody else is doing.”

Mason is strategy director at Syrup, a creative agency based in New York. His book The Pirate’s Dilemma: How youth culture is reinventing capitalism is the first book to hit the number one spot on Amazon’s economic/enterprise bestseller list and the rap bestseller list. The book has been published in 10 countries.

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During his teen years, Mason was also a pirate radio and club DJ in England.

Pirate radio is typically used to describe small unlicensed and unregulated radio stations that illegally broadcast for entertainment or political reasons.

Mason said pirate radio stations first sprung up in the U.K. in the 1950s and grew in popularity in the 1970s.

The stations remained strong throughout the 1980s and 1990s but now – thanks to the Internet -are taking on a different flavour.

Although there have been occasions where sea vessels have been used to house the stations, as in the movie Pirate Radio, most stations in the U.K from the 1950s to the present time are located in buildings.

“I didn’t think of it as illegal because I simply liked the music,” Mason said, recalling his days as a bootleg DJ.

He also thinks many large enterprises are dealing with the piracy issue the wrong way.

“You can’t really stop pirates. The best thing to do is to study what they provide people and how and then find a way to offer that service or product legally.”

Stuart McDonald, principal of Tripharbour Ltd. a Toronto-based online vacation and cruise booking company, agrees.

“Piracy occurs because people want something in a way that pirates can only deliver. Established businesses cannot or will not deliver it to the people,” McDonald, also one of the organizers of Mesh U, said.

He said this situation is most evident in industries where technology has got far ahead, but mainstream businesses have refused to alter their models.

Using the new technology pirates step in and steal the market, said McDonald.

In the travel industry for instance, the Internet has revolutionized agency services. Incumbent market leaders who weren’t quick enough to adapt, fell by the wayside.

Meanwhile, smaller, more nimble companies harnessed the power of the Web to offer online bookings, he said.

The spirit of pirate radio could have been behind the creation of online file sharing site, such as Napster, Mason said. Napster operated from 1999 to 2001 until it was shut down by the court.

Technology allowed people to easily share mp3 files with other Napster users. The practice bypassed the established market for songs and led to publishers charging the site with copyright violations and intellectual property infringement.

“The need to have free, unregulated music led to pirate radio and eventually Napster. It took Steve Jobs of Apple to legitimize the Napster model through iTunes,” Mason said.

Almost the same pattern of innovation and copyright angst can be seen in the development of mobile and online television services, such as Hulu and MoboVivo in Canada or the Internet movie services such as Zip.ca and Netflix.

Many large companies feel intimidated by the fact that technological developments have democratized “or rendered free” the distribution of goods and services they sell.

“They can’t figure out a way to make money out of developments such as the Internet and file sharing, so their immediate reaction is to shut down those that do.”

Mason says it’s not that he has no respect for intellectual property.

When he finally got his book published he said his immediate thought was to have it entirely available online for free.

“But the publishers told me it would be sending out the wrong message – that the book, the work I and other people put in to produce the product was worthless.”

In the end, Mason’s tome on how counter-culture movements such as punk, hi-hop, rave, graffiti and online gaming shaped innovation was sold on Amazon and bookstores. However, Mason also offers it up online at whatever price the market will bear.

Some people download the book for free.

“It’s totally fine with me if people get it for free. What burns me man is when some bloke downloads the book and leaves 2 cents,” Mason said.

Ultimately, offering the book for free online, led to more hard copy sales.

“People who liked the book, realized they don’t want to have it on their computers only, but printing nearly 300 pages would end up being costlier than buying the hard copy,” Mason said.

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