This week there’s been an uproar about a billboard that ostensibly asks artists to “pick a side” as to whether they support piracy or not. According to the NY Times:
For the last week a mysterious ad has flashed on the LED billboard above the American Eagle Outfitters store at Broadway and 46th Street, just over the bronze shoulder of George M. Cohan. Variably positing piracy as “criminal,” “progress” and “the future,” it asks the observer to “pick a side” on Twitter, as #artistsforpiracy or #artistsagainstpiracy.
It turns out that the entity behind the flashing billboard is a rather innocuous Brooklyn based band (of two) named “Ghost Beach.” The apparel company “American Eagle” had arranged for band’s use of the billboard as part of a deal to license one of their songs.
In posting the provocative messages, band member Josh Ocean explained their intent to the New York Times: “Since we started we’ve given away all our music for free, so just telling people to purchase our music somewhere didn’t seem natural for us. So we said, ‘What if we take advantage of this and open up a discussion about the new music industry?’ ”
The ad agency TBWA\Chiat\Day created the campaign on a pro bono basis for the band and certainly it’s been successful in raising their profile. Unfortunately, as is often the case with advertisements, the challenge posed by the flashing LED in Times Square is based on a false equivalency. Though purported to be designed to generate discussion about a worthy topic, in reality the campaign is merely a slick and sophistic illusion that does little to advance, or inform, artists (or anyone else) about scenarios for music distribution in our digital age.
While it’s worthwhile for artists to debate such issues, it’s disingenuous to equate the choice to give one’s music away as being equivalent to piracy. Piracy is not about giving, it’s about stealing.
Despite the advertisement’s apparent theme, Ocean told the New York Times the band doesn’t support piracy:
“We are against piracy in the sense that we are for new technologies and using the Internet in a way that wins over it by us giving away our music directly to fans,” Mr. Ocean said. “That way we know where the music is going and can establish that connection directly with fans.”
“We never want to promote blatantly going out and stealing music,” he added. “What we do want to do is offer choices that we think are right.”
If you don’t want to promote “stealing music” then perhaps you should think twice before allowing an ad agency to glibly frame a discussion about digital distribution around the mendacious premise that artists must be either “for” piracy or “against” it because last time I checked, the definition of piracy includes:
“the unauthorized reproduction or use of a copyrighted book, recording, television program, patented invention, trademarked product, etc.”
Note the key word being “unauthorized.” When artists choose to give their work away, they’re not choosing to support piracy, they’re choosing to offer their creations to the public at no cost. It’s a distribution decision any artist is free to make, but please don’t call it piracy…