Louis C.K., the bleak, endearing stand-up comic, has made himself astoundingly popular by talking about bad behaviour: He channels the selfish things in life people do that they really shouldn't, or think about doing that they very nearly did. Now, he's taken his show to the Internet, with a paradoxical plea: Please behave well.
Last week, C.K. (the stage name is a phonetic approximation of his real name, Louis Szekely) released a new full-length special called Live at the Beacon Theatre – a big event for a comedian, and his legions of fans. However, he took the unorthodox step of not just releasing it online for $5 a pop, but releasing it in an unprotected format. On his website, he wrote a special note to those who might pirate the file.
"I'd just like you to consider this: I made this video extremely easy to use against well-informed advice. I was told that it would be easier to torrent the way I made it, but I chose to do it this way anyway, because I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without 'corporate' restrictions."
"Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation," he continued. "I'm just some guy … I can't stop you from torrenting; all I can do is politely ask you to pay your five little dollars, enjoy the video and let other people find it in the same way."
(Torrenting is a form of downloading that pulls pieces of a media file from different computers at once.)
His plea was almost a dare. By removing copy protections, by insisting that he's a person and not a corporation, by making the price reasonable to a fault, the comedian has stripped away most of the moral justifications that pirates use to legitimize getting free stuff from the Internet.
And coming when it does, as the U.S. government considers restrictive new Internet laws that would restrict the flow of information to benefit rights-holders, the move has sparked a Web-wide conversation: Is the solution to piracy to compete with it as a market force, as C.K. is doing, or to try to stamp it out completely?
Louis C.K.'s experiment is certainly a departure for big-name stand-up comics. Specials serve both as creative centrepieces and as revenue generators; typically, they air on cable networks before being sold on DVD, from whence they trickle illicitly onto the Internet. By selling straight to viewers in an unlocked format, C.K. is not only doing an end run around the networks, but also the new breed of locked-down corporate media channels like iTunes and Netflix.
In a way, there's something a bit disingenuous about C.K.'s experiment. He's certainly not the first popular artist to try this; Radiohead did much the same in 2007. What's more, Digital Rights Management might be a bigger issue to pundits and lawmakers than to consumers, who generally seem more concerned with convenience than principle. And rights-managed DVDs are hardly immune to piracy. (Where do you think all those YouTube movie clips come from? Film canisters?) Even Apple dropped DRM from most of its iTunes songs years ago.
But C.K. did make a splash, which has translated into discussion, publicity and attention (hello there!), especially among his Internet-savvy younger fans.
Moreover, it's sparked a discussion among the people who spend a lot of time sharing files, mostly illegally, and mostly by torrenting.
Devoted pirates are a curious and amorphous lot. Of course, there is a substantial contingent of digital libertarians who have strong feelings about the moral righteousness of piracy because they like free stuff. C.K.'s appeal struck at the heart of that constituency. The comfort that comes of lifting bits from a corporation is absent when you're talking about a one-man production company, and the one man in question has personally asked you not to rip him off.
Even the person who, inevitably, did post the file onto the torrent networks appended an apologetic note, ungrammatically noting that "not everyone has PayPal, not everyone has credit cards" and that "art = comedy should be shared with the mass."
For all that, the idea of piracy also has more principled defenders, who hold that it's a disruptive market force that, while doing little material harm, coerces media leviathans into innovation.
There's something to this: Consumers engage in piracy when it's easier to take a vaguely immoral route than it is to buy media legitimately.
As such, piracy will flourish when media companies make digital downloads an expensive, obnoxious pain in the rear – unless, of course, the Internet is turned into a digital police state in which no data that's not authorized by its corporate overlords can pass. This is a real risk; that would be a world in which everyone loses.
It's easy to write off piracy as a fact of life among those who have more time than money. One response is to demand stiffer laws, and to jack up prices. In Louis C.K.'s world, however, there might be more money to be made by playing ball.