Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Pirate's Dilemma

Cropping up all the time, I see references to The Pirate's Dilemma, both a bestselling book and a very popular blog written by Matt Mason. It details how internet piracy and youth culture have influenced the modern economy. Here's Reason Magazine's breakdown of his description of Pirates of the Caribbean as an example of the trends that he profiles in his book.
Mason concentrates on edgier industries, but we need look no further than Disney’s multi-billion-dollar Pirates of the Caribbean franchise for a prime example of a decades-long saga of a major corporation first plagiarizing itself and then encouraging others to do the same.

It began in the late 1950s, when someone at Disneyland dreamed up a wax museum of history’s great pirates, sort of a seafaring Madame Tussaud’s. After the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the herky-jerky robot motions and pre-recorded audio of “animatronics” became all the rage. Disneyland’s wax-pirate exhibit slowly evolved into a creepy, scary, kitschy wonder: a shadowy boat ride through larger-than-life animated pirates going about their dirty business.

After a few decades of mooring itself into the subconscious minds of American children—who among us didn’t duck when the fake cannonballs whistled by?—the Pirates of the Caribbean resurfaced in the early 1990s as a screenplay pitch from Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, whose previous projects included Aladdin and Shrek, paradigmatic specimens of the self-aware, self-referential, pop-literate era of animated features.

In 2003, Disney finally turned the adaptation of the theme-park ride into celluloid. The rest is history: Swaggery drunk Johnny Depp (in a character openly lifted from Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards) spawned a trilogy of films, the second of which made an astonishing $1,066,179,725 in worldwide box office. Halloween costumes abounded, some Disney-issued and some not. Some were simply labeled “pirate” but looked a lot like Sparrow/Richards.

At least eight video games inspired by the film have appeared, with varying degrees of official sanction. A mobile phone game released by Disney’s Internet unit received lackluster reviews while a popular, unauthorized Xbox game borrowed the title, The Black Pearl, and little else. But instead of suing the peglegs off their unauthorized competitors, Disney simply pulled alongside and joined the melee with its own (free) Pirates of the Caribbean online role-playing game, fighting it out on the pirates’ own terms. Disney has stopped seeing at least some of the world’s pirates and remixers as thieves, and started seeing them as opportunities for a vast, multi-faceted marketing campaign.

Using the customizable characters from the role-playing game, fans were soon creating original YouTube videos—digital clips of pirates skewering British officers on their cutlasses, for example—from within the world of Pirates of the Caribbean Online. Some of the best were made by the 10,000 fans given passwords for the beta test of the online game at a pre-screening of the third movie, making them officially sanctioned pirate remixers (many of whom take their role literally, showing up to the screening in eye patches and tricorns).

Lots of these fan-fiction films have developed narratives of their own. They are part of a growing movement of machinima, where fans use video game environments to create their own animated movies, many of them borrowing characters or settings from Hollywood blockbusters. Meanwhile, the unauthorized Xbox game has in turn become the basis for 14 (and counting) user-modified versions at the online community.

In 2006, completing the great circle of recycling, Disneyland altered the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride to include an animatronic Johnny Depp.

In an effort to explain this mash-up landscape, Mason turns, with mixed success, to the last days of disco, to the early days of tagging New York subway cars, and to economic game theory. The most apt parallel, though, is to an industry known for its fickleness. Video and music companies are slowly realizing something that the world of fashion—with its markedly more relaxed attitude toward intellectual property—has always known. In the words of Coco Chanel, who long ruled the fashion world with an iron fist and a quilted handbag, “a fashion that does not reach the streets is not a fashion.”

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