Piracy, Circulatory Legitimacy, and Neoliberal Subjectivity in Brazil

Peer Reviewed


Alexander Dent’s essay examines how recent trajectories of neoliberalism have placed “piracy” – a loaded term for the unauthorized production and exchange of goods – in a central position in Brazil’s consumer economy. This paper explores the “anxious subjectivities” this has created for people engaging with piracy in two very different contexts: an NGO that campaigns against it, and an informal marketplace where piracy is practiced. By turns, piracy is conceptualized as a proud form of ingenuity, as a national embarrassment, and as either a threat or a boon to “creativity” and “justice”. Dent leads the reader into a critical re-examination of the concept of “intellectual property” by drawing out its problematic ideological underpinnings and real-life ramifications for vulnerable market vendors in Campinas.

Cultural Anthropology has published many articles on intellectual property, including, Gabriella Coleman’s “Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest Among Free and Open Source Software” (2009), Christopher M. Kelty, Michael M. J. Fischer, Alex “Rex” Golub, Jason Baird Jackson, Kimberly Christen, Michael F. Brown, and Tom Boellstorff’s “Anthropology of/in Circulation: The Future of Open Access and Scholarly Societies” (2008), and Christopher Kelty’s “Geeks, Social Imaginaries, and Recursive Publics” (2005).

Cultural Anthropology has also published articles on South America. See, for example, John Collins’ ““But What If I Should Need to Defecate in Your Neighborhood, Madame?”: Empire, Redemption, and the “Tradition of the Oppressed” in a Brazilian World Heritage Site” (2008), Charles Briggs’ “Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations Between Narrative and Violence” (2007), and Steven Rubenstein’s “Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads” (2007).

About the Author

Alexander Dent, "Alexander Dent." October 19, 2012 via .

Pictured here with an “original” boot (purchased through legitimate circulatory channels), Alexander S. Dent is Associate Professor of Anthropology at George Washington University. You can visit his website here.

Interview with the Author

RYAN JAMES: Your article takes the reader through some wide-ranging fieldsites – from an antipiracy NGO promoting a sentimental attachment to “authentic” products, to a largely informal market where “pirated” products are sold amidst police violence and internal conflict. Could you describe the fieldwork dynamics at each – how did people receive you? If there were any suspicions regarding your work, how did you navigate them?

ALEXANDER DENT: I first started looking at informal economies of music when I was doing research for my first book, on Brazilian rural musical genres (música caipira, and música sertaneja).  Between 1998 and 2008, this research on piracy was relatively simple to do.  People on both sides of the spectrum were anxious to share their perspectives.

However, the field has become embattled in the last two to three years.  As a result of the anti-piracy campaigns I describe, people in the camelódromo are quite nervous about talking to me, or anyone at all, for that matter.  Taking pictures has become impossible.  But what I have been able to gather is that because their work has become so embattled, what was once a cottage industry of kids copying CDs and DVDs has increasingly become criminalized.

To put this differently, the anti-piracy campaigns have actually caused the criminalization of CD and DVD copying -- at least in medium-sized cities like Campinas.  On the other side of the spectrum, the anti-piracy NGOs have also become more nervous.  They have been receiving a great deal of negative attention in the blogosphere, and have even been hacked a few times -- their sites and email accounts taken over.  Understandably, this makes them very nervous.  All of this is a very bad sign.

One of the problems with piracy is that it is so poorly studied.  "Industry" sponsored studies by and large use child-like methodologies, so there needs to be lots more work on this in academic spaces.  But now that the increasing scrutiny of piracy is criminalizing it and forcing it further underground, the collection of information on the issue is going to become harder and harder.

To be perfectly honest, I'm still figuring out the methodological challenges associated with the project's next phase.

RJ: You illustrate how the antipiracy lobby strives to attain a hegemonic position in the Brazilian consumer economy through a rhetoric of defending “creativity” and “justice”. Though it is clear that their agenda serves powerful corporate interests (and criminalizes vulnerable people in the process), is there anything to these claims? For example, did you ever come across local artists whose ability to make money was undermined by others selling unauthorized copies of their work?

AD: The short answer to your question is "no."  The musicians I was working most closely with for my first book were selling small numbers of units, and they were simply not affected by illegal copying of their material.

One of my ten-string guitar teachers in Brazil (the "viola" is Brazilian rural music's consummate instrument) still has one of his records being held hostage by a reputable Brazilian label called Brasil-Wood.  Essentially, the head of the label, who recorded the record, has allowed it to go out of print, and is charging a laughable price for the artist to buy his own record back so he can make his own copies of it.  But this is not conventional piracy (though my teacher thinks of it as such) and is not really what I'm describing in my article.

I will say, from my own personal perspective as a singer-songwriter, that I have been pirated myself a few times.  Each time, it robbed me of about eight bucks, but the person inevitably showed up at a live concert and either payed to get in or threw money into a hat, so I didn't see it as a loss.

I think that the business model where record companies make a lot of money off of record sales is pretty much dead. There's a terrific conference held here in DC each year put on by the Future of Music Coalition. And there you can see that most musicians have simply moved on -- they're busy making music and figuring out new ways to generate revenue.  It's not that record sales are a thing of the past entirely, but most practicing musicians have understood that record sales must be heavily supported by other sources of revenue.

This said, the record industry in the United States AND in Brazil will claim that piracy is hurting musicians directly.  I won't bother to cite their proof for this, as it is plastered all over the internet.

A final thing to point to is that no musician, poet, or artist that I've ever worked with has pointed to a consciousness of copyright in the act of creation, nor have they explained their creative endeavors as the result of a desire to get rich.  Stephen Johnson talks about creativity a bit in his book on what he calls "the fourth quadrant."  Though I would explain in terms of "culture" much of what he explains in terms of evolution and biology, I nonetheless think his points are worth considering.

RJ: Though its customers cut across social classes, is the camelódromo a stigmatized space in some way? Do the police maintain an everyday, mundane presence there, or is their activity largely limited to the sporadic, violent raids you describe?

AD: Great question.  They DO maintain a mundane presence there.  I have yet to explore this dialogue between the raids and the daily presence -- though, as I said above, the research is becoming more and more difficult.

RJ: Free music and movies have long been accessible online – even legally, through YouTube and the like. Is this content readily accessible to many of the vendors’ clients, and have sales suffered as a result? Does it make piracy seem any less exciting to those who celebrate it as a subversive “free[ing] of ideas”?

AD: First, I'd say that YouTube is nothing like watching movies in their entirety.  Because the media conglomerates take down even the tiniest clips quickly, YouTube can't really be compared with piracy.

But there are other things that this question elicits in the Brazilian case.  Actually, free (or even cheap) content has not really been available in the same ways as it has been in North America.  First, this is because internet penetration has not been as great.

But this has also been because the RIAA and the MPAA have not chosen to make "Third World" markets as competitive as the markets in which they generate most of their revenue.  There unwillingness to do so strikes me as utterly bizarre.  Have a glance at the SSRC report on piracy for more information on this.

Now, as internet penetration is increasing, physical CD and DVD piracy in Brazil does seem to be increasing, and I'd imagine that this would continue.

Additional Works

2010. Flouting the Elmo Necessity and Denying the Local Roots of Interpretation: "Anthropology's" Quarrel with ACTA and Authoritarian IP Regimes. PIJIP Research Paper no. 3. American University Washington College of Law, Washington, DC.

2009. River of Tears: Country Music, Memory, and Modernity in Brazil. Durham: Duke University Press.

2007. "Country brothers: Kinship and Chronotope in Brazilian Rural Public Culture." Anthropological Quarterly 80(2): 455-496.

2006. "High Ropes and Hard Times: Wilderness and the Sublime in Adventure-Based Education." International Journal of the History of Sport 23(5) 856-875.

2005. "Cross-Cultural "Countries": Covers, Conjunctures, and the Whiff of Nashville in Música Sertaneja (Brazilian Country Music)." Popular Music and Society 28(2):207-221.

Suggested Reading

Alexander S. Dent participated in the 2011 Social Science Research Council report, Media Piracy in Emerging Economies (Joe Karaganis, Ed.)

The Future of Music Coalition is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to "ensure a diverse musical culture where artists flourish, are compensated fairly for their work, and where fans can find the music they want."

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. What about “piracy” is of interest to anthropologists? How does this differ from the attention it receives from the mainstream media?

2. Has reading this article affected your ethical position on the unauthorized use / exchange of consumer goods? What about Dent’s reminder that you (like everyone else in the room) have almost certainly been a “pirate” at one point or another?

3. The differences between Dent’s two fieldsites are obvious – but what do they have in common?

4. What are some cultural factors that inform the debates around piracy mentioned in this article?

5. If neoliberalism as a dominant ideology calls for a “free market” whose benefits will “trickle down”, why is the legitimate marketplace so inaccessible?

6. Does it contradict “free market” principles to send the police to the market by the Campinas bus station?

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