Wednesday, August 24, 2011

8.25.11 My Little Black Box

This article originally appeared in the 8.25.11 issue of Metroland.

According to my abacus, this is the 150th ROT. ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy. Mwah!

Moving on. A friend sent over an article yesterday about an art exhibit in New York that consists of a one terabyte digital storage unit. Looks like the storage unit on my desk, and maybe the one on yours. What makes this one gallery-worthy is that the artist claims that it contains $5 million worth of stolen content that he downloaded from the internet. The list of “stolen” works include:

- every published work of literary fiction from 2003-present, which the artist found online in a single bittorrent file
-a Rosetta Stone Language Pack...
-113 GBs of music...
-lots of gaming software
-a whole bunch of Adobe and Autocad software

Now, like most of you, I take a pretty dim view of a lot of so-called conceptual art, like the guy whose performance at the Knox-Albright Gallery in Buffalo a few months ago consisted of looking at a Jackson Pollock painting for 40 hours (the “performance” was streamed on the internet, so you could watch him watch). But this terabyte storage piece packs a wallop.

The artist couldn’t have spent more than a few hours finding and downloading this stuff and no doubt most of that time involved waiting for it to download. Any of us could do the same thing right now. Most of us, to a greater or lesser extent, already have.

And while some have questioned the valuation of the stuff (and the artist admits that some of his estimates are a little loose), the cumulative retail price of what’s on that drive is surely in the neighborhood of $5 million. OK, say it's only $3 million. That’s still a lot of moolah packed into a little black plastic box.

The artist calls into question, again, the efficacy of intellectual property laws, particularly copyrights, in a world of digital media and the internet. When technology allows unlimited copying and the storage and transfer of gigundous amounts of information and media with the push of a button, when everybody has that technology in their homes and offices and dorm-rooms, well, what does that mean, exactly? And do we try to control it? Should we? Why? On behalf of whom? And at what cost? Is it even possible to control it? How?

What happens if the artist gets sued? After all, he (or she) is admitting to “stealing” millions of dollars worth of copyrighted stuff. Would a First Amendment defense fly? “I downloaded $5 million worth of stuff as an art performance, to make a statement about the nature of digital media and about the compensation of authors, musicians, and other players in the creative realm.” Would a fair use defense fly? “My installation was a purely creative piece, my purpose for copying was different than the purposes for which the various downloaded works were originally created, and my work has caused absolutely no displacement in the marketplace for the original works.” Next.

And who’s gonna defend the artist should the combined corporate legal forces of the RIAA, the Association of American Publishers, the Authors’ Guild, the Business Software Alliance, etc. etc. etc. all land on the artist at once? Yikes! And think about what the legal complaint would demand: the seizure of the little black plastic box, a finding of willful infringement, and damages of up to $150,000 per infringed item. That’s $150,000 for every song, game, book, and application that are sitting in a common device smaller than a bread box that you can buy anywhere for $80, all acquired in a few hours of activity on the internet that any of us could do. The damage claim would, of course, make the $5 million retail value of the stuff on the drive look like chump change.

Do you think the world of IP law might be a teensy-weensy little bit out of balance?

Now, imagine if the artist went out and bought five (or fifty, or five hundred) more one terabyte storage units and daisy-chained them up in the gallery and pushed “copy”. You could watch “piracy” on a mammoth scale while listening to the soft whir of spinning hard drives. How exciting would that be? And how apoplectic the various “content owners” would get.

The gallery display of the $5 million terabyte is simultaneously extremely banal and wildly provocative. My guess is that the artist won’t get sued for his little storage device, because that would only draw attention to the issues it raises. In the midst of their propaganda campaigns about stealing, piracy, lost jobs, ties to terrorism, no more music, no more movies, no more newspapers, and no more books, the last thing the Big Media companies want is for you to actually think critically about these things.

And that’s exactly what this modest and simple art exhibit does. Bravo.


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